Sunday, September 11, 2011

Words of Power

On a walk into school last week I started thinking about cuss words. Since this is a post about cussing, I will include some strong language, if only to refer to the word itself. The departure point for this post is the thought that, although they all refer to the same substance, words like "poop," "crap," and "shit" all have varying levels of social taboo, ordered in increasing order I believe. This highlights that the taboo nature of cuss words, while related to the sensitive subjects they inevitably are about, is not solely tied to the literal meaning of the word. Rather, it, like all word connotations and meanings, is a very cultural phenomenon.

I have sometimes had conversations with people who believed that our hang ups and censorship of such words is ridiculous and ought to be stopped. I have also heard that, for example, the Japanese language does not have such taboo-ed words. Be that as it may, I have always been a champion of leaving some words beyond the pale of polite society.

Usually my support has been of the form that all words have culturally defined meanings, and our culture has defined some words to be rude and disrespectful to say, so saying such words must be rude and disrespectful, to the same degree that a verb must be an action. However, on this particular walk I started thinking about the power given to these taboo-ed words by their very taboo nature.

By habit, I am not inclined to particularly vitriolic language, but I think that causes my cussing to lend greater emphasis to what I say than it would otherwise when I do occasionally cuss. On that note, if any of you are reading this, I would appreciate if that story were not to be posted openly on the Internet, you know who you are. If that makes no sense to you, ask me about it in person sometime if your curiosity must be assuaged, it is probably a funny story, but I am not particularly proud of it, so I don't want it just floating on the Internet.

Anyway, while, by their vary nature, these words cannot lend their emphasis to a statement very often, at risk of losing their power, it is very useful to have them in reserve for those horrible occasions when everyday words lack enough power to convey a sentiment. And do not mistake me, I am using the word power in a very literal sense, it is no coincidence in my mind that magic in so many traditions has some form of verbal component. Ask any mathematician and they will assure you that it is very important for words and symbols to be properly arranged in order for them to correctly channel the idea for which they are intended.

Furthermore, insofar as reality is something shared and inter-subjective, if not objective, then language is our truest manner of interacting with reality. By this I mean that language is our least subjective form of communication. Thus, the words we use to describe our private experiences, our thoughts, reactions, and emotions, directly determine how we enter into the public reality as people. As such, it is important that we have words of power at our disposal, for we are powerful consciousnesses and have powerful experiences.

In fact, I would argue that we do not have enough taboo-ed words! The taboo-ed words we have span too limited a range of emotion, being, for the most part, negative. For example, consider how much trouble we have with the word "love," in its most powerful context, even though we permit the debasement of its meaning through its usage on all manner of trivialities. Now imagine how potent it would be if we had a word which wasn't even considered polite to say, a word whose very usage indicated that it had been ripped irrationally from our tongue by the strength of our passions.

We need words like that, not just for hate and disgust as we currently have, but also for love, joy, and beauty. And we need to be content not to use them. We must resist the urge to clinically emphasize a point by employing them as strong rhetoric, and instead preserve their power in our fear and reverence.


elfarmy17 said...

Well, we can always say "I love _______ so #$%ing much," but having tabooed words for love...that would be amazing.

I know a few people who throw out supposedly taboo words as if they're nothing, and I know people who I have never once heard swear (I lean toward this end, but that's mainly due to a traumatic experience in elementary school rather than a principled aversion to it). It was interesting to hear one of my teachers last year tell us that while we may hear certain words several times a day in the hallway, that doesn't make them any less rude in society as a whole. I'm really not sure, though.

In 5th grade, it was a shock for my teacher to say "crap." In middle school, saying "hell" when referring to the actual place was a source of surprise when it came from a teacher. In high school, I've had two teachers who swear almost as badly as some of the students, and we're expected to say "whore" when reading aloud from a play without batting an eye. So are they really that horrible, then, if they're so common? Or are a lot of people just really rude?

Kenny said...

If I go to a McDonald's in Tel Aviv and order a bacon cheeseburger, am I being rude?

I do agree that some people cuss as though it were no big deal, and I would imagine that part of that is that to them, personally, the word is not a terribly big deal. However, insofar as these words are a big deal in our society, and considering how tightly regulated they are in public media I hope it is clear that they are a big deal, this casual usage indicates a refusal or inability to respect the communal preference, which does seem a bit rude.

On a wildly different, yet related note, have you ever read Piers Anthony's Apprentice Adept series?

elfarmy17 said...

Well, McDonalds sells what it sells, so I'd think they'd expect people to buy things off the menu, regardless of anything else. It shouldn't be considered rude.

No, I haven't read it/them.

Kenny said...

Ah, but a McDonald's in Tel Aviv does not sell a bacon cheeseburger. Although, surprisingly enough, they will sell a cheeseburger.