I love cursing. This affinity for swear words goes back as far as i can recall. I can’t claim to have had fully formed theories about language in the early days, but something always attracted me and mystified me about the concept of “Bad Words”. What makes a word bad? Who gets to decide that? Were these bad words once good words before something terrible happened?
I have had many excellent teachers in my life, and one of them was a fella who called himself Dynamite Dick from Tear Ass Crick. This man taught me about euphemism and dysphemism in the seventh grade. Simply put, a euphemism is a socially acceptable way to speak about uncomfortable or taboo issues, or material that might not be appropriate for all-ages when in a mixed-age environment, and this generally includes but is not limited to sex, other bodily excretions, and death. Some sources go so far as to call a euphemistic term good, polite, or pleasant. Dysphemism is then seen as a derogatory or unpleasant way to describe something, employed instead of the scientific, neutral, or polite term. Because Dynamite Dick from Tear Ass Crick was a master, he also explained onomatopoeia in the midst of tackling euphemism and dysphemism. “Piss” was his lead-off example of an onomatopoetical dysphemism – a word that sounds like what it is and a word with a negative or less-than-proper connotation used in lieu of a technical term such as “urinate” or a euphemistic phrase like “go number 1”.
I have never stopped thinking about this, that there is a three-fold relationship between things we seek to describe and the terms we employ to do the describing, or as i like to think of them, the good, the bad, and the technical. At first glance, euphemism seems easy to understand. We seek to gloss over or smooth out the rough or less than pleasant parts of life. When dealing with children, we don’t necessarily want to take the responsibility for teaching them about sex or death. These sound like simple and obvious answers, but even in the seemingly innocuous case of utilizing euphemisms, there are value judgements being made. Why are “pee-pee” or “tinkle” acceptable euphemisms and “piss” is a dysphemism? For that matter, what is wrong with teaching kids technical terms? I would love to hear crowds of young kids in the mall screaming, “Mommy, i have to URINATE!!” Why did we ever begin the process of substituting other words for technical terms? I do love language, and would not want to limit the number of tools available for anyone to use to describe this world and our experience of it, but why would a desire for additional terms necessitate instituting a value judgment on the quality and connotation of the words themselves? I can understand how we as individuals, and as a society, decide that certain actions have normative value. We decide that soothing a crying child is good, and kicking an old lady into the street is bad. (There is an obvious slippery slope in the wings here, but i think we can avoid it for the purposes of this discussion.) I want to emphasize that i can and do understand assigning value judgments to actions, but to do the same to the words is mystifying to me.
These questions get even better and richer when we look at a few interesting cases:
Bitch – there are many “negative” connotations in popular usage: to complain unnecessarily or inordinately, an unpleasant female, a somewhat powerless subordinate. How and why does the technical term for a female dog, wolf, fox, or otter inherit these connotations? Most of the female dogs any of us can think of are beloved family pets. “Like a bitch in heat” is a simile often used to indicate that a woman is extremely desirous of, if not insistent for a sexual encounter. My experience with female dogs in heat is limited, but all that i have ever seen were taking extreme measures to avoid one or more male dogs in pursuit, and were very grateful for any aid in avoiding their pursuers, or being liberated from unwanted sexual acts. The original meaning of the terms has a disparate intent from common usage. How does that happen?
Pussy – this has always struck me as supremely odd word to use as an insult. The intent seems to be an insinuation that someone is weak or otherwise less-than. “You are such a pussy!” Simultaneously, this is also used to describe something valuable, desired, and eagerly sought after. “I am dying to get some pussy!” What a strange dichotomy!
Fuck – the uses are multitudinous, far too many to go into detail here. Like ‘pussy’ above, there is a similarly perplexing dichotomy at work. We use the term both for something often considered highly desirable (intercourse) and as an expression of rage and frustration (general expletive).
How does one word move from one classification to another? What is going on when one single term can serve as both a euphemism for one thing and a dysphemism for another? How do benign technical terms take on extra meaning through social use?
To come at it from a different angle how about this…
Rape – pretty universally accepted as bad action, and rapists are seen as bad people, or at least as people who have done a bad thing. The word itself though, does not seem to carry the same stigma. Rape is just the scientific, technical, or proper term for an action – neither a euphemism nor a dysphemism. We don’t talk about rape very often in society, but it is the kind of subject that i would think cries out for a euphemism. What does it say about us as a race of beings that we have a plethora of substitute terms, counted by most as euphemisms, for the act of excreting liquid waste from our bladders, but not one euphemism for rape.
I am not going to do a full etymological analysis here. The point of this piece is to limber our brains a bit, prepare us to think deeply – if not differently – about language, and provide some foreshadowing for other elements to come in the pending larger discussions of the philosophy of language and (as my buddy Dave pointed out) the language of philosophy, as we ease into the exploration of Epistemology and Truth.