What’s in a word?

Brian asked me a question this evening that I didn’t quite know how to answer:

“Why is using the word ‘fuck’ so bad?”

Hmmm, ok.

Let’s see.

I could explain the idea of social norms to him. We could talk about “polite society” and why it’s not “proper” to use “bad” words in public. And let that be the end of it.

I could do all of that.

But I wouldn’t be answering his actual question. His question was “Why?”

So I started thinking…

Why is using the word ‘shit’ any worse than ‘crap’ any worse than ‘bad’?

“That statement is bullshit.”
“That statement is crap.”
“That statement is bad.”

The last one is fine. The first one is not so. And yet, all three of them are simply syllables that form words. Why are they any different?

The real difference is the meaning to which we give these words. It is a tangible example of how we define ourselves as a (collective) people. As well as who we are as individuals. How we have agreed to live and communicate.

If we deem the word ‘shit’ as bad, then we have all agreed that its usage is discouraged because of its “bad”-ness.

The best example I can think of is the use of the word ‘nigger’. In the worst usage, it is a (terrible) slur against African Americans and, really, any people of color. But think about it this way. It’s only a slur when used in a certain context by a certain group of people.

If that word is used by a certain homogeneous group of like-minded individuals, its usage is not considered bad or hurtful. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

“What up, my nigger?” is something that I have heard by (African American) friends addressing each other. Its usage denotes a sense of oneness, a togetherness, that is shared by those individuals within that group. It’s used in a loving manner, not a hateful one. It’s accepted. And it’s accepted because those within that group have agreed that its usage with one another is acceptable.

Conversely, when used in an entirely different homogeneous group of like-minded individuals (let’s use the KKK as an example here), its usage denotes a sense of hatred and revulsion. And it’s for the same reason. The individuals within that group have all agreed and accepted the fact that the word means something “bad”.

A less polarizing example would be the word ‘love’. We all understand that the use of the word ‘love’ denotes a deeper connection, a deeper sentiment than the use of the word ‘like’. Why? They’re just words, right? But they mean what they mean because we have given them that meaning.

So what did I end up telling Brian about using the word ‘fuck’?

I told him that we, as a group of people, as a society, have determined that the word ‘fuck’ is not to be used in public. It is impolite in an improper context.

And why?

Basically, because WE said so.


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