By John Mattingly
I remember the days of, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” And, “I am rubber, you are glue so what you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” Codicils to these were: “Talk is cheap,” and “Actions speak louder than words,” and “BS walks.”
Today, however, Forbidden Words (FWs) sometimes carry the force of sticks and stones, lies stick like glue, talk can be very expensive, and BS is walking to the bank.
Words can be so treacherous that Congress will probably pass serious word control long before sensible gun control. The makers of WATCH YOUR STEP signs need only replace one word to make it easy to remind people that a stray word might trip you up.
Some students now require “trigger warnings” to protect them from the surprise of encountering words so dangerous that they might faint, or be psychologically wounded for life, even when those FWs appear in classic literature. It isn’t difficult to imagine certain books requiring a label that reads:
WARNING: Reading this book may be hazardous to your sensibilities. Consult a psychiatrist immediately if your self worth is at risk.
Many of these dangerous words have been hygienically reduced to code by forcibly straining the first letter through a linguistic sieve that strains out the remaining letters. We have the F-word, the S-and S-hole word, the C-word, the N-word, the B-word and so forth. Of all the words worth watching, perhaps “word” itself is filled with unexpected significance, absorbing all the letters that make it dangerous. “Word” substitution for word, is out of respect for the injury that vagrant use of such words could cause, yet curiously absolving the speaker, as if the power of the Word was the Word itself.
It’s just a word. But it’s also language, the exponent of our ability to generalize, communicate, and appreciate. Most people have sincere appreciation for words spoken or written in a way that evokes the same sensations as music. The great speeches, retorts, witticisms, letters, interviews, performances, and books can surprise the soul, enlighten the mind, or challenge the status quo.
The real trouble with the Forbidden Words is that they are irresistible. They roll off the tongue and communicate without effort. Sometimes they simply burst unbeckoned from our lips and any recipients within earshot not only know what you meant, they can tell how you really felt about it instantly because the FWs are capable of dozens of inflections, each with a different emphasis.
Think of the alternate words for vagina, penis, intercourse, American, African, Italian, Irish, English, German, rectum, exudate, man and woman, to list a few. The alternates to these words are plentiful, and revealing of culture, bias, education and gut. Say one, and then the other, and see which comes out most naturally. Even as I write this column, the urge to speak the Forbidden Words is difficult to restrain.
Of course, words do matter. A lot. If language communicates, what difference is it really to use the shorthand word versus the actual word? The fact that it makes a difference from a regulatory standpoint is not only silly and silly-sounding, it’s flavored with self-serving avoidance, a subtle form of hypocrisy. As is the bewildering capitulation of Evangelical Christians to the unrepentant waywardness of a man like President D. Trump, aka Donald Drumpf. But that’s another story.
It is blatantly curious that, at this particular time, with this particular leadership in America, our culture is both trying to release the FWs from bondage by assaulting PC, when a growing number of folks seem to be super-susceptible to PC offenses. A difference in language reveals a difference in culture. Your words say a lot about you.
Meanwhile, back at Reality TV Government, trigger warnings might be considered before using such words as evil, horrific, shameful, homeland, never again, animal, coward, heinous, gun, and especially terrorism, a word with nine lives.
Like an enzyme with many ports, “terrorism” usually comes with a trigger warning from a trigger finger.
John Mattingly cultivates prose, among other things, and was most recently seen near Moffat.