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.

Subscribe to this blog's RSS feed

Another First-of-the-Month Quickie

rogersgeorge on September 1st, 2016

I commented on censorship recently; also about profanity. Not sure which to classify this under. Soup to Nutz is the name.

52d9b8a01fb601347a82005056a9545d

Part of the humor, I suppose, is the censorship. The word in the last cell is probably “stinks,” which is hardly censorable, but the strip would be less funny with an actual word.

With reference to that first cell, when we were boys, my brother and I watched a movie about some guys in the navy that made a humorous point about beeping out one sailor’s profanity. For some time afterwards, whenever we wanted to express frustration, we’d say something like “Well, boopity boop boop boop.” Bob, do you remember the name of that movie?

Tourette Syndrome

rogersgeorge on July 27th, 2016

When people read good expository writing, they think about the content, not about the writing. (This doesn’t apply to poetry, by the way, where part of the attraction is admiration of the writing itself.) In a way, this is a disadvantage for technical writers and such, because by definition, then, you tend not to notice the good stuff. Several years ago someone got a Nobel prize in economics for describing this situation, in which the highest value things tend to be under-priced because the purchaser tends not to appreciate the difference in quality.

Tourette syndrome is a condition when a person with physical tics involuntarily inserts profanity into their conversation. That’s the point of this Carpe Diem comic—the fortune teller has Tourettes. I suppose the comic censors prevented the cartoonist from making her say anything more profane, though “serial killer” is bad enough.

Carpe Diem - 07/15/2016All that leads to a hobby horse of mine that I’ve mentioned only once before. You don’t need profanity to explain something. It calls attention to the writing, jolting the reader away from the content. If you’re a tech writer with Tourette syndrome, be sure to proofread your work really really carefully.

 

Four-letter words

rogersgeorge on January 7th, 2012

Yes, this post is about bad language. Does profanity have a place in writing? Not in the kind of writing I advocate; just the same, profanity is an interesting subject.

Perhaps a small glossary is in order.

Profanity—terms that call to mind the purely earthly and secular.
Cursing—wishing someone ill.
Swearing—calling the deity to be a witness of the truth of a promise.
Minced oath—changing a bad word or phrase to avoid the stigma of using the actual expression.
Insult—accusing someone of possessing undesirable traits.

First, why do we call profanity “four-letter words”? Back in 1066 when the Norman French defeated the English, Anglo-Saxon got relegated to the barnyards, and pretty much lost all social standing. Perfectly ordinary (sometimes four-letter) words took on this low status, and we have inherited this social standing for many words of Anglo-Saxon origin. So we say “cow” when it’s on the hoof, and “beef” when it’s on the plate. You can supply your own examples for bodily functions, whose social status fell rather more sharply than terms for food.

On the plate

On the hoof

In our culture, direct public references to private bodily functions using words of Anglo-Saxon origin have almost no place in polite conversation, even though the words themselves have benign origins. You might be interested to learn, for example, that the word for sexual intercourse has one of the longest and most distinguished etymologies of any word in our language. Look it up in your copy of Carl Darling Buck’s A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages. This tome is a fascinating read, by the way, but that’s a topic for another post.

Even when the topic of your writing covers these private functions (a medical document, for example) you should use Greek- and Latin-based technical terms.  That’s just how it is. Using profane four-letter words distracts your reader from the subject matter; and remember, your goal is to let your writing be transparent.

What about cursing? It carries the same social stigma as profanity. If you’re explaining something, you don’t need to curse. I have a problem wishing ill on anyone under any circumstances, but I can see how it might fit into some fiction and polemical writing.

And swearing? (Which of the Ten Suggestions Commandments is it?) “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” Vain means “of little value; temporary.” God says He doesn’t want to be called to witness anything trivial. I think the admonition in the New Testament that “Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay” is reasonable. Whether you believe in God or not, you don’t need to emphasize what you say by reference to deity. Just say what you mean; always tell the truth. Period.

What about saying “darn” or “sacré bleu” instead of “damn” or “by the devil”? The intent is the same as using the “official” bad word; just as undesirable, in my opinion. Be creative! Say what you mean with realistic or clever unconventional words. “I wish you better understood the value of silence.” “You really missed a good opportunity to not say anything, didn’t you?” “I wish your behavior weren’t so reprehensible.” “I certainly hope that doesn’t happen again.” “It wasn’t a year one would look back on with fondness, was it?”

Finally, insults. Insults are perhaps the most benign type of bad language because they lend themselves to creativity. Shakspeare used some wonderful insults in his plays. Remember the old westerns on afternoon TV in the 50s? “Why you mangy lily-livered polecat! I oughta slit yer gizzle.” Actual bad language was forbidden back then, so some of the language got pretty colorful. Nonetheless, insults are ad hominem arguments, fallacious. Stand above that sort of thing.

Enough! I need to go take a shower.

All these proscribed words are bad mainly for cultural reasons. This negative emotional effect has one benefit, however, in some kinds of speech therapy. Watch the movie The King’s Speech and you’ll see what I mean.

What if you want to express the emotion of disappointment, frustration, surprise, or disapproval? If you can’t do these without resorting to profanity, here’s a little help. I recently ran into a word for that purpose that seems to have absolutely no scatological or other culturally unpleasant connotation. I ran into it in a Google error message: Oh Snap!

Even though I digress occasionally, the kind of writing I expose you to in these humble pages is expository writing; writing that conveys information with as few distractions as possible. Profanity, cursing, swearing, and insults cannot help you express yourself plainly. Save those things for trashy novels and old westerns.

For vocabulary that I never use, this has been a long post. Eight  hundred eleven words.