Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Just Words

We had a little conversation in our household about civilized language, because one of our members has developed a taste for salt in his sentences.

“They’re just words,” said my offspring. “They don’t have magic powers.”

I didn’t even try the time-tested rejoinder about how people who curse have limited vocabularies; his surpasses most people’s twice his age. The best I could come up with is that if words don’t have power, why don’t we order Chilean sea bass by its real name, “Patagonian toothfish”?

Offspring’s retort: “I don’t eat fish.”

In truth, I have been known to say a few words shaded blue. Years passed in the company of brothers and Marines assure that I’m no Victorian. A damn here or a hell there is like the tiny steam vent on a pressure cooker. But there seems to be a hierarchy of foul language which draws its users ever upward, the relatively harmless terms leading inevitably to the Queen Mother of all curse words (take your pick) and beyond. Teenagers comprise a bunch especially susceptible to the lure of this forbidden fruit. (Quick adolescent confession: High school French class, days we had a substitute, we were directed to play French Scrabble, but we found Naughty Word Scrabble was more entertaining and didn’t require actual knowledge of a foreign language. I missed a Triple Word Score on purpose so I wouldn’t reveal my own extensive vocabulaire vilain).

With a literary and linguistic anecdote, I will illustrate my theory of the crude language hierarchy. This story demonstrates just how early kids grasp the concept that some words are worse than others, and will further suggest that children are compelled to use those worse words simply because they are forbidden.

When Offspring was just a couple of years into the world, I could tell he was going to need some firm limits. I took a preemptive stance and I banned anything that would boost him toward the first rung of the ladder of vulgarity. I knew if I gave him too much freedom, he would push against my generosity and croak out something mortifying in front of my grandmother.

“We don’t say ‘butt,’” I told him. “It’s ‘hinder.’”

“But I hear other people say it.”

“I know, but we’re different. Don’t say ‘butt.’”

Part of my problem was that he wanted to read books that were beyond his maturity level, and sometimes I relented. When he was five, I let him read James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl – a chapter book meant for older children. I knew Dahl appealed to kids who wanted to stick it to adults in a symbolic way, so I figured it would be just edgy enough. When he finished, I asked him how he’d liked it.

“It was good. It had some bad words in it, though.”

“Like what? Like d-a-m-n?”

“No, like a-s-s.”

“Oh,” I said, graver than the situation warranted.

And then he said it: “Good thing we’ve got words like ‘butt’ around here.”

Oh, they know!

All I wanted to do was tone down the language. What I’ve really done is create a euphemism, a lovely assistant on the language stage who tries to distract her audience. She tells them that they should try the Orange Roughy (not the “Slimehead”), that their company is “rightsizing,” and that, oops, she’s just had a “wardrobe malfunction.”

As he makes his way in the world, Offspring will watch this act. Will he be more disquieted by crude words or by the ironic term “adult language” that serves to cover for them? What will he believe it means to be an adult, to be invited to use their language? Will he gather that the ratings term “mature” conceals a slew of meanings, from locker room humor to graphic violence, but in no way represents the type of maturity I hope he achieves? Yes, I want him to stop participating in the coarsening of our language, but I also hope he learns to watch the magician’s sleeve, which carries the very real power of making truth disappear.

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