Friday, January 15, 2016
You Can't Say That!
Yesterday, as I scrolled the Facebook timeline, I ran across a post by a dear old friend. It was a share from somewhere else. You know the type; a bit of text that is philosophical, advisory or, perhaps, just plain old clever word play. This particular post said something like (paraphrasing), If you can’t carry on a conversation without using profanity, you’re not much of a conversationalist—or I don’t want to hear it—or talk to someone else… something along those lines, followed by a, can I get an amen or a share. Well, I did read it but scrolled on to other things. Later, I thought about it and when I did, I remembered the “7 Dirty Words” bit that the late great comedian, George Carlin, performed a number of years ago. So, I logged onto YouTube and listened to it again. It’s just as funny and thought provoking now as it was the first time I saw it many years ago. Although Carlin played his performances for laughs, the man was a master at putting things the world takes for granted into perspective.
I’ve been a novelist since 1998, full time since 2002. In the early years I was schooled many times by editors, agents, and publishers much smarter than I am about word choice—over usage, wrong usage, or the evils of adverbs. I also learned that using obscure words requiring the reader to pull out a dictionary is a fast way to break a readers flow and yank them right out of the plot, distractions a novelist certainly does not want to saddle their fans with. Other heinous distractions are typos, grammatical errors and, sometimes, the use of profanity. And now we’re back to dirty words.
The subject of profanity has always fascinated me. When I was a child, growing up on a cotton farm on the South Plains of Texas, I spent much time among farmers hanging out at a cotton gin office near my boyhood home. It was the de facto place to socialize, usually around a domino table. The language I was fed a steady diet of were all of George Carlin’s 7 dirty words, plus quite a few more, broken up by mumbles and grunts. So my tolerance for profanity is very high. I have to reel my own tongue back in occasionally. Salty language comes far too naturally to me. That said, I do attempt to be respectful of folks attitudes against its use and not spout obscenities willy-nilly in any crowd, like some I know.
Now for the good stuff—the questions: What makes a word, any word, profane? For every bad word, there are a number of others that mean the same thing. Why aren’t those profane? At what point in our history were certain words labeled as dirty, and by whom? Did popes, ministers, preachers, and politicians all get together one day around a conference table and agree on an ooh-ick factor for certain words? Or, maybe, it wasn’t words defining certain acts, but the acts themselves. That makes some sense to me. Maybe people were embarrassed by talk of sex, fecal matter, bodily functions, etc. Therefore, various descriptors were not to be spoken of. If so, it simply goes in a circle and we’re back to the question: Why? What makes any of these things taboo to talk about, using any language form?
Fascinating subject, I believe. And not without hard opinions, I’m sure… just not from me.