By Steve Thomas
As a writer, few things interest me more than words. All words.
The fact that I can use the word “subterfuge” instead of deception, or “pusillanimous” to mean cowardly is interesting to me (and only me, I’m sure).
But it’s essentially why I’m a journalism major. It’s why graduate exam vocabulary flashcards are going to give me the kind of sick pleasure physics majors must get when they stumble across a pendulum in the real world and start making unnecessary calculations.
Society is obsessed with words too, but its focus tends to be on words other than “exacerbate” (worsen), “pulchritude” (beauty) or “vituperative” (scolding).
Let’s just say society tends to focus on the four-letter words that finagle their way into Lil’ Wayne songs like “Got Money.”
And I quote: “My click clack goes the black ho pimp and just like it I blow that sh** ’cause bit** I’m the bomb like tick, tick.”
Awesome, I know; and classy to boot.
Listen to it on the radio and you’ll hear the trademark pauses in place of my trademark asterisks, and everyone gets to pretend they don’t know what goes in the blanks. The FCC turns the song into a Mad Lib or musical Swiss cheese, depending on how you look at it.
Either way, profanity is a strange thing made stranger by the special attention it receives.
Those asterisks stick out like a sore thumb in print, and the gaps in rap songs are more audible (and laughable in excess) than any other part of the song.
Profanity is like a bad pimple: the more you try to disguise it, the more obvious it becomes.
There’s plenty I don’t claim to understand about vulgarity, but at the top of the list is what the actual words have to do with anything. Let me try to explain, starting with a “duh” statement.
“Cat” is a word. So is “beach,” and so is “marshmallow.” Technically speaking, each word is nothing more than a series of sounds – “mahrsh-mel-lo” or “k-at.”
We’ve assigned meaning to these words so that when I say, “I fed the cat a marshmallow on the beach,” I make a weird statement about what I do in my free time.
But somehow we’ve decided that some series of sounds are to be offensive in nature.
Thus, when we make a sound like “sh” and follow it with “it,” we’ve crossed a line.
Sorry Lil’ Wayne, but you can’t make the sounds “bit” and “ch” consecutively on the radio, lest you offend the ears of the general public or, heaven forbid, their children.
Phonetics is an issue, but perhaps a ridiculous one. It’s easy to dismiss the “sounds we don’t like” argument, but in the grand scheme of things the FCC is actually trying to shield us from is the message, right?
Profanity is supposed to spread hateful, hurtful or condescending messages through raw and visceral language. It’s why my sarcastic comment about Lil’ Wayne’s lyrics being “classy” is funny (to me, anyway).
But are things really made better by swapping “dirty” words for “clean” ones?
If I stub my toe on my futon and exclaim “son of a biscuit!” instead of, well, y’know, does the meaning change at all? I’m still in agony, hobbling about in circles and irrationally furious with my midday nap machine.
The anger is legitimate, albeit misplaced, and the feelings behind the exclamation are the same no matter how I finish the “son of a” statement.
“Son of a buttress (a prop or support)!” expresses the same emotion with different phonetics, so the message remains.
In fact, baby talk language expressing harsh ideas is pretty ironic if you ask me.
So what’s the harm in everyone saying that exam was “boo-hockey” instead of “bullsh**?” I suppose there isn’t any, but it wouldn’t take long for “boo-hockey” to be the next of the words Lil’ Wayne can’t say on the radio.
Cuss words change over time (see examples like “humbug” or “bloody,” considered profane as recently as the 1970s in the UK).
Words and their meanings adapt, and it’s the meanings that are hurtful, not the phonetics of the words.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter to me. It doesn’t matter because profanity has always been and will always be. Society needs words that shock and offend in order to cover all the bases of the human experience.
To have it any other way would be to live life a la carte.
And frankly, that would be boo-hockey.