Several times recently I have been a part of a conversation which tackles the question of taboo words. Eventually these conversations always come around to the same point, cleanly cleaving the room in twain. The question usually refers to the more extreme of taboo words, in the majority of cases, the “c” word (no, I will not type it) and why it is that so many of us are insulted by it. I’m beginning to feel a need to defend myself on this score.
I believe the argument goes that the derogatory connotations of this and similar expletives are linked to the book religions’ condemnation of sex and sexuality, and the oppression of womankind. That it is senseless to be insulted by a word whose meaning is anatomical unless you are offended by your anatomy. That, at the end of the day, it is just a word like any other.
“Please” is a just a word like any other. Likewise, “thank you”. Yet I reserve the right to be angered as and when these simple courtesies are dropped. I will still call “You’re welcome” down the street after the ignoramus who hasn’t thanked me for holding the door, or verbalise my disapproval of children who have not been taught to say “please” when asking for something. I will still shout at Radio 2 in the morning when the umpteenth child this week answers Chris Evans’ friendly and polite “How are you today?” with “Good.”
The other argument I have heard espoused is that by being insulted by a word we are giving it power, and that by refusing to find it insulting we remove all power from the word. I can see the logic in this. It’s a technique I adopt in some cases when being provoked in the hope that I’ll retaliate. By not retaliating, yes, I am stripping them of their power. But I still feel the sting of their words.
I have been teased for being prudish my whole life. Friends, colleagues and acquaintances do not swear near me for fear of upsetting my delicate sensibilities. I am subject to ridicule because I do not know the meaning of certain vernacular and have been known to innocently ask “What does this mean?” I am often amused that, whilst asking the meaning of certain words seems to lay me open to teasing, the challenge can often cause the offender to blush, and stumble over the true definition. In some cases, it seems we are far happier to use an expletive than we are to explicate on the word’s signification.
I do not swear often, in part because swear words just do not sound right coming out of my mouth, in part because I am aware that those in the immediate environs might be offended by bad language, and in the most part, returning to a previous point, because when I do swear, I want the words to hold their meaning. I don’t want to lessen their expletive nature by making them “ordinary”. I only ever swear if I want to express the force of my feelings on a subject. (Or if I’ve had a glass of wine, when, in fairness, I tend to swear because I feel my feelings with a far greater force…)
It comes down to respect. I choose to show respect to other people whom I meet, and I expect them to respect me in return. The “c” word and others of the same ilk, whatever their dictionary definition may be, are applied in the majority of cases to shock, humiliate or offend. Even if you are not shocked, humiliated or offended yourself by the words, you do not know that those around you won’t be. These words carry the potential to cause harm: in the sad majority of cases they are applied with the intent to do so.
And applying a word or phrase with the intention to shock, humiliate or offend is simply not very sporting. There is real linguistic skill to inflicting a deep wound cleverly and subtly. Resorting to swear words – much like resorting to exploiting a person’s known weaknesses – well, it’s simply not cricket.
I think what I take most offence at is the implication that being offended by swear words belittles me as a person, that taking offence so easily makes me somehow petty, that being prudish on the subject of bad language makes my discomfiture unworthy of attention. Or, from the reverse angle, that freely using these words suggests a more enlightened understanding of language and a less intimidated handling of vocabulary. I can hold my own, linguistically speaking, without resorting to taboos. I am not intimidated by the uncommon or the archaic. At the end of the day, I fail to understand how it is that my feelings on the subject lose all credibility for the simple reason that they do not match up with someone else’s.
You have the right to swear and I do not have the right to stop you. But I sure as hell have the right not to.