20 January 2012

Words. Words. Words.

Nerdmaste and happy Friday to you all, my lovely readers.

Today I bring you a rant about something near and dear to my heart: Words. This week I've seen multiple conversations talking about language. Chuck Wendig, Tommy Pluck and others were having a debate on Twitter about profanity in writing, particularly crime fiction. It's been fun, enlightening and has opened up new possibilities in the world of four-letter-words. Not long after this, a post on Facebook made me cringe at someone's use of a euphemism. And thus, a rant formed and now I am sharing with you my personal thoughts on language.

Buckle up.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that, as a writer, I am fascinated by words. At the heart of my interest is rhythm. Poetry, prose, conversation...it all flows. Our words create their own rhythms and even the most mundane comments when spoken aloud can ring with authority and grace simply because the right words were used in the right order. I love the way an accent can change the rhythm, the pronunciation or even the word choice. It's mesmerizing. Beyond this, though, is meaning. We try to pack centuries of human experience into tiny letters and then expect those definitions to stand up to an ever-changing landscape. When 7 billion people live and experience the world in their billions of ways, words will take on new shapes and meanings not just from epoch to epoch, culture to culture but from person to person. Hell, even a day can change the way a single word impacts you. For example, one day you're walking across campus without a care. The next you're in a hospital shivering after a sexual assault and from that moment forward you have a visceral reaction to the word, "rape". Words are slippery chameleons with their own emotions charged into them for every person who uses them.
"What is it you read, my lord?" 

Words have baggage. Some words are reviled and avoided due to the genetic/societal memory of how they were once used to objectify, enslave and dehumanize. Slurs and epithets carry wars and atrocities in their little letters. Some words are seen as "bad" due to notions of propriety. What is illegal on television is acceptable in some movies and music. You wouldn't tell a nun you've had a shitty day but you might say it to a friend, teacher or a waitress.

Words have a time and a place. In writing, word choice can tell you a lot about a character. Do they use taboo slurs? Do they curse? Do they consistently misuse big words or abuse grammar? Do they use contractions or drop the g's off of the ends of -ing words? By the way a person talks, you get a sense of who they are and what their experiences have been like. The words can show us more than the character tells us.

So when someone tells me that I say, "Fuck" too much or that "goatfucker" isn't acceptable when referring to my satyr character, I'm going to pick a fight. Look, I spent 7 years in a drumline with some of the most foul-mouthed, disrespectful budding misogynists you could find. If I spoke a second language fluently it would be "Fuck". Is it base humor? Does it pander to the crass? Possibly, but it's a word! Crass or no, it has value. It's rhythm. It's more than just a euphemism/slang for fornication, it's a percussive sound that can punctuate anger, frustration. It can add gravity to a statement. It can act as any part of speech and it can be modified in so many luscious ways.

I am an acolyte of George Carlin, Mr. 7 Dirty Words himself. He says it better than I could ever hope to in his book Last Words, but the gist is that language is so rich and diverse! It's amazing how squeamish people get when you say "cock", "cunt" or "piss" instead of tamer synonyms like "penis, "vagina" or "urine". You might think that Carlin didn't respect the English language because of how much he chose to inhabit its darker corners, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. Carlin, like me, loves language and words. He, too, was fascinated by not just words and their rhythms or meanings, but also the reactions words incite!

Profanity has its place in the world and it's not just at the back of the class room or in the poor neighborhoods. Profanity can be glorious! (Profanity can also be used to try to mask poor writing. Do. Not. Do. This.) Look at Christopher Moore's books. He takes Shakespear's King Lear, tells it from the Fool's perspective and gives us "Fuckstockings!"** It's beautiful! (If you haven't read Fool, read it now. I'll wait.)

On the flip side of this is a trend to avoid perfectly "normal" words. Yes, there's "political correctness" and I think that's bullshit, but what I'm talking about is more subtle and annoying. Euphemisms have their place. As a friend said, "You wouldn't say, 'I'm going to the lavatory to defecate.'" There are so many ways you can communicate that thought and unless you're a cyborg you're not going to be that clinical about it. You don't have to go vulgar and say you're going to "take a shit"...there are perfectly good alternatives that are socially acceptable.

However...the one that really pisses me off and makes me shudder every. damn. time I see/hear it used:


Why the fuck do people do this? Seriously? Why is this a thing? No, I don't expect everyone to say, "menstruating", but what is wrong with just saying "period". It's something anyone with a 5th grade education should know about: Every 28 days or so a female who has been through puberty will shed her uterine lining (blood) unless a fetus has implanted there. A woman has a period. Period! Why the fuck can't we just say it that way? 

Look, I know it can be an uncomfortable subject, especially for men. (Trust me, it's more uncomfortable for us than it is for you. Sack up.) When I was a teenager, my dad would get a little squicked out by me just mentioning it. Well, how do my dad and I deal with discomfiting things? Humor. I then referred to my period as "a visit from Stephen King" (or just Stephen King). This made light of the ick factor and was a way that a teenaged girl and her bachelor dad could talk about an awkward subject. I get that. 

Also, I know there are other terms used as more of an insult.  "What's wrong with her?" "Oh, she must be on the rag." In Clueless, "riding the crimson wave" was kinda funny. But "aunt flo", "monthly bill", "visitor" all that shit? Come on. Don't pussyfoot around it. The word you're looking for is period.

Words have power. And I think this is why shit like the above bothers me so much. By taking a very acceptable word for something that is a natural, biological process and stuffing stupid euphemisms in its place, we belittle the process itself. Because we feel shame and discomfort at the word, we feel shame and discomfort at the act. Call me a bitch (and I better deserve it) and you're insulting me. Refer to all women as bitches and you're saying something about yourself right there. This goes for racial slurs as well as labels like "faggot". You're disrespecting an entire group of humans.

So often we like to think words have black and white meanings to match the text on the page. They don't, though. And they never will. Words are constantly evolving like the societies that use them. Words are malleable and conform to the needs of the time. You never just "read" a book. You imbibe a series of ideas and experiences because these words flow with their own life. Words are astounding. Use them freely because they are yours. Remember to also use them wisely.

**Throx.com sells "Fucksox" with the Christopher Moore font. It is Fucksox Friday! All proceeds go to MS research. Just sayin'. 


Thomas Pluck said...

Goatfucker is a lovely word.

Chris Seggerman said...

Did you know that some of our curse words come from Norman snobbery? Invading Normans said stuff like "defecate" and "urinate." The local Anglo-Saxons said "Shit" and "Piss". So far as I know, the etymology on "fuck" is something like "to beat against."

Odd story: I did not connect "On the rag" with menstruation due to "Pump Up The Volume", where Christian Slater said he was "on the rag" when he ranted I thought it just meant "ragging", which seemed to be a synonym for ranting.

("Ragging" probably has the same misogynist origin, I bet.)

Anyway, freshman year of high school I once said a teacher was "on the rag" and a girl said "I never thought I'd hear you say something like that!" and I suddenly flashed to The Thorn Birds where a character announces her period by saying "Guess what, Mum! I'm on the rag!" and the whole thing suddenly added up to a very embarrassing conclusion.

Similarly? Aunt Flo? NEVER HEARD OF HER. Raised by a Mother and Grandmother and NEVER HEARD OF HER. In college, a coworker said "Yeah, Aunt Flo's coming to visit," and I said "What, is she a terrible person or something?" She rightfully looked askance and said "Aunt Flo? Y'know? Period?" and once more, I felt like an idiot.

Jamie Wyman said...

@ Thomas - It is indeed. It's a term of endearment.

@ Chris - If I recall, "on the rag" was partially derived from the days before commercially available tampons, maxi-pads etc. Women would often wear a rag to soak up fluid. So you'd say you were "on the rag". I could be wrong.

Cheryl said...

I normally HATE euphemisms for period... However, I have been a forum rat for long enough that without even thinking about it, AF = period....

I do despise the use of gay, retard, and rape as epithets... and have ranted on many a dumbass in WoW for talking about how they just "faceraped the retard Lich King"... My huge ones are these 3, and I made a concerted effort to get those I love to stop using them... However, if you give it the same meaning, how is it any different? If you substitute 'derp' for retard, you are still meaning the same thing.... It's a HUGE language....

Cheryl said...

And no, you're not wrong, Jamie, that's where 'on the rag' came from.... check out the museum of menstruation if you like... it is very enlightening and fascinating... at least to me

Karen Dawson said...

I have a book you need to borrow - "The Joy of Lex". It's about all different types of word stuff. My favorite book in High School :)

And I understand what you are talking about with exposure to obscenities. I worked as the sole office person for a production shop. The "front office" had no separation from the production area. I think they tried even harder to be obscene because I was there.

Chris Seggerman said...

I figured that's where "on the rag" came from, but I feared "ragging" = "complaining" may have descended from a dark place, as in "complaining angrily like a woman on her period, amirite, dudebros?" Slang etymology is slippery.

Wait a minute... No, OED has "The action of scolding, annoying, etc. as early as 1796, in the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, with "She game him a good ragging."

The verb form, dialect and slang, says it's obscure origin, compared to ballyrag and bullyrag, and the first instance they found was in 1739.

(OED also mentions "cunnilingue" as a comparable word to "fellate" but I can't remember how they define "gamahuche" which is equal-opportunity, so far as I recall.)

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