Bad words are something that most of us grow up being taught that we shouldn’t use and that they are offensive. In some cases it may also be taught that using bad words is a sign of being uneducated. I want to push back on these notions as I see them as an odd social expectation that has questionable reasons for existing.
The use of bad words is more complex than I am going to get into in one blog post. There are academics that have some in depth analysis of the topic, so I am just going to give a brief overview.
Bad words, as we know them in English speaking countries, stems from a period in British history when the French ruled parts of Britain. The common, or vulgar, language of the time was a mixture of Celtic and Germanic language. Many of the most notorious bad words have their root in German. At this period in history, the language of the Educated and Elite in Britain was a mixture of French and Latin. If one didn’t want to seem uneducated, they used French or Latin. The effects of this class difference still show up in our language today. For instance, we call animals by an English name, like cow or pig, but call the meat by a French name, like beef and pork.
Given this class dynamic, the use of the vulgar language was considered offensive. This became especially true of words intended to describe things that were deemed unpleasant. We have since passed this notion down through the generations to the modern world.
Interestingly, though we say that the language is offensive and shouldn’t be used, the language is used fairly often. Even though the social expectation states that we shouldn’t use the language, people who subscribe to that idea will still use the language in more comfortable settings.
So, several questions arise from the taboo of using bad words. The first is, if we are using it anyway is it really bad? Why are these words bad, but one can convey the same idea with another word and it’s fine? The offense often times seems to come as a result of the use of a particular organization of letters to convey an idea instead of the idea itself. I would argue that in most cases when people are offended by bad words they are only offended because of the word, not the idea it conveys. This seems silly to me. I tend to only care that I can understand the idea that one is attempting to convey. I only concern myself with the word choice if I can’t understand the word’s meaning.
The taboo of using certain words also gives those words power. If they can offend, then they can get someone’s attention. Making the words a taboo creates a scenario where their use is preferable in order to spread a message that might not otherwise be heard. With that, the bad words are kept alive. We can see that in modern times since the words have managed to remain a common fixture in our language even though socially we have tried to eliminate their use.
I have to wonder if it makes more sense to find offense in the idea that words convey or if finding offense in a word simply because we have been programmed to be offended by the word is something that has a place in modern society. Why add that layer of difficulty to a conversation? Why be offended simply because you’ve been told to be offended? If we do just accept bad words as normal and not offensive, then will people find other words to use that do offend people in order to make a statement? The answers to these questions are pretty interesting, but at the end of the day I firmly believe that if one must be offended, they should be offended by ideas, not the combination of letters chosen to convey the idea. I also don’t think that limiting one’s vocabulary is necessarily a sign of education. Pardon my French, but I know many people who use bad words that are pretty damned smart.