Five Kinds of Bad Words

rogersgeorge on September 7th, 2016

This comic, Tina’s Groove, made me think of today’s post:

I was going to write about four kinds of bad words, but then I thought of a fifth. So here are five types of words that ought never appear in expository writing. (Yet I’m going to mention examples of these, and this post is expository. I guess using them as examples isn’t the same as actually using them. (This conundrum reminds me of Gödel’s proof, part of which proves that contradiction is inherent in all logical systems.) But I digress.)

Profanity. Profane is the opposite of holy. Profane means something like “having nothing spiritual about it.” We call profanity “four-letter words,” “Anglo-Saxon,” obscenities,” “dirty.”  Well, lots more euphemisms than those four; Google them if you like.  The strength of a profane expression is in how unacceptable in polite company the word is. In fact we have a whole vocabulary of profane expressions designed specifically to express different degrees of shock value, apparently to match one’s degree of disgust with one’s degree of politeness. The latest one, I think, is “Oh snap!” Pretty hard to connect that with anything dirty. We call these mild forms of profanity “minced oaths,” by the way. Apparently there’s a word for everything!

Oaths, also called swearing.  Yes, these terms are frequently used interchangeably with profanity, but there’s a technical difference. You swear an oath. Technically an oath is a type of promise in which you either call down some penalty on yourself if you’re not telling the truth, or you call on a higher authority to witness that you’re telling the truth. The verb is “swear,” and the noun is “oath.” These are oaths that you can swear:

  • Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye
  • By Jove!
  • I swear on my mother’s grave!
  • …so help me God

Real, conscious, sworn oaths aren’t necessarily bad, but they generally aren’t appropriate or necessary for explaining things, either.

Curses. A curse is a wish that harm will befall someone. (Or something. You can curse your computer, for example.) You can mince curses, too. You can say “Go jump in the lake,” or “Go to h-e-double toothpicks,” or “Why don’t you take up residence in Tophet?” Some curses aren’t quite obvious: “Just wait until you have teenagers!” My favorite curse is “I hope your grandchildren take up motorcycling.” I mutter it under my breath when someone in a car tries to kill me. But I don’t use curses when I explain something.

Insults. An insult is a way of telling someone that they are distasteful. The westerns of yesteryear were pretty creative with their insults. “Why you no-good yaller, lily-livered skunk, you” comes to mind. Shakespeare was pretty colorful with his insults. In fact I recall a website where you can construct your own in his style. Here’s another with referenced quotes. The best insults are ones when the insulted person doesn’t realize they’re being insulted. “I highly recommend you to my mother-in-law” has been used on at least one occasion. Some insults are unintentional or ambiguous, or intended to be humorous, so take care not to take offense easily if you think someone has insulted you. When you explain something in writing, you won’t insult someone by making it simple. They can always skip over that part.

Lies. You know what lies are, and lies come in degrees same as everything else listed in this post. The key is the intent. If you want someone to believe something that’s not so, it’s a lie. Being incorrect isn’t lying, but it’s a good idea to be correct or give fair warning about the possibility of error. Saying something that isn’t literally true isn’t a lie if it’s, say, a figure of speech, or understood to be humor. I guess parental exaggerations fall into this category: “I hope your face doesn’t freeze like that!” I’m a technical writer by trade, and I tell people that “I tell the truth for a living,” and every statement in this post is the truth. Except one.

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A nice insult

rogersgeorge on January 27th, 2012

Somebody criticized Robert Burns’ writing, once. I think you could call his reply “strongly worded” even though he uttered not a single profanity. Many of the metaphors are particularly apt, and it requires a classical education (or access to Google) to “get” all the allusions.

Thou eunuch of language; thou Englishman, who never was south the Tweed; thou servile echo of fashionable barbarisms; thou quack, vending the nostrums of empirical elocution; thou marriage-maker between vowels and consonants, on the Gretna-green of caprice; thou cobler, botching the flimsy socks of bombast oratory; thou blacksmith, hammering the rivets of absurdity; thou butcher, embruing thy hands in the bowels of orthography; thou arch-heretic in pronunciation; thou pitch-pipe of affected emphasis; thou carpenter, mortising the awkward joints of jarring sentences; thou squeaking dissonance of cadence; thou pimp of gender; thou Lyon Herald to silly etymology; thou antipode of grammar; thou executioner of construction; thou brood of the speech-distracting builders of the Tower of Babel; thou lingual confusion worse confounded; thou scape-gallows from the land of syntax; thou scavenger of mood and tense; thou murderous accoucheur of infant learning; thou ignis fatuus, misleading the steps of benighted ignorance; thou pickle-herring in the puppet-show of nonsense; thou faithful recorder of barbarous idiom; thou persecutor of syllabication; thou baleful meteor, foretelling and facilitating the rapid approach of Nox and Erebus.

Of course I can’t resist making a grammar comment. Did you notice that the entire passage contains not a single main verb? Plenty of participles, and a “was” in a subordinate clause, but the whole thing is really a sentence fragment! At first glance it looks like an extended direct address, as if someone called “Hey you!” and then didn’t follow up with anything.

Actually, Burns isn’t quite so guilty of bad grammar. He left out the main verb (this is called ellipsis), which would have been the second word, “art” or nowadays, “are.” The verb “to be” is easy to leave out in many languages, and we use this particular construction not infrequently when we want to insult someone. Ever hear someone call out “You Sunday driver!” or “you nincompoop!” Same thing.

Only Burns did it rather more eloquently.

Everybody shows a picture of the poet; here's a picture of his home