Thursday, September 9, 2010

A few words on bad words

The Grape says words now, and he repeats things. Yesterday he pronounced his dinner "yucky." He learned that word on the playground; the yucky item in question was sand. I suspect he believes "yucky" means the act of spitting something out.

R. and I should start watching what we say around him. Because otherwise one of his first hundred words might be "fuck."

I'm a fan of the f-word.

Not because I lack a more sophisticated vocabulary. Not because of some lingering rebellion against our mothers' notions of ladylike language. I like its versatility and its ability to underscore a point a thousand times more strongly than the weak and overused "very." Several years ago, I worked for a sophisticated, educated woman who could use the f-word as every part of speech. I kind of liked that about her.

But I'm digressing. My point is that I think the word "fuck" just isn't the bad word it used to be. Sure, it's still a crass description of the basic sex act, and that's not something I'm eager to explain to the Grape anytime before, let's say, preschool. But "fuck" lacks the withering power to degrade someone or something. Which, to my mind at least, makes it much less bad than a lot of words that permeate the urban vernacular. Another six-letter word that I'm not even going to type springs to mind.

In my opinion, this particular word should have no place outside literature. We need to keep the n-word in Huck Finn and Uncle Tom, as well as in modern books about the country's not-so-distant past. And when teachers teach these books, they should tackle the language head on for what it is: a weapon used by those in power to keep others marginalized. They should also teach that its prevalence in African American parlance is an example of a previously marginalized group taking ownership of a semantic weapon, thereby rendering it less powerful. I get that, but I cannot help wishing that word would just go away.

For most of my life, I never considered words like "slut" and "whore" in the same category as the f-bomb, let alone in the horrid class of racial slurs. Those words sound crass, of course, but somehow they never seemed quite as awful. Then I heard Lisa Goldblatt Grace from the My Life, My Choice program speak at an event about child trafficking. I wasn't the only person in the room who didn't realize that the average age a girl enters prostitution in Massachusetts is twelve. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority have never touched drugs before becoming prostitutes; their traffickers introduce drugs as one of many methods of control. These girls aren't "crack whores" or "dirty sluts." They're victims of pimps and customers who somehow believe it's alright to molest a minor if they pay cash for the privilege.

Labeling the girls with words that make them sound culpable serves to divert attention from the real criminals in the trafficking and prostitution scenario.

Racial and sexual slurs of all varieties can hurt and disparage in a way the f-word can't even touch. But they're everywhere. In pop and hip hop lyrics. In the passing banter of middle schoolers. And all over the internet. These are the words I dread explaining to my kid, but explain the I will, when the time comes, because these bad words do something the f-word doesn't: they label, degrade and classify some "other" as less than fully human.

And if I hear those words cross the Grape's lips, after he is old enough to understand, you can bet he'll get the soap.

I don't use the f-word as freely as I used to. Call me old fashioned, but I don't think it's the most attractive thing coming from the mouths of babes. But if he says it eventually, I can't see myself getting too riled. "Fuck" plainly illustrates the old sticks and stones adage.

Some of the really bad words heard all too frequently on the sidewalks of Boston do not.

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