Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Power of Words

I’d be the first to say that words have power. Words are my profession. Words are the stone that I carve from to make things that persuade, comfort, engender, plead, assuage, chide, assert, embody, capitulate, encourage…

For years, I believed—and in many cases still believe—that when someone says something, even in jest, there is a bit of sincerity to it, a bit of truth. You may joke that someone is “the heartless one” of the gang, but you wouldn’t be joking about it unless it were partly true or there was evidence that could be construed to back the statement. Sometimes we still use irony on occasion today, but often what we call ironic is actually sarcastic.

This applies, so I have always thought, to swearing as well. When you say “f*** you,” you may just mean it to express your anger. But nevertheless, you’re saying a curse (essentially, “may you be raped”) and you’re angry enough to say the curse—a part of you does mean it. Yet often the anger is momentary, and if you heard the next day that your curse had come true, you would not be happy about it, and would perhaps feel a little guilty about your outburst.

We so often misuse words like this. And yet, is it really a misuse of words? Perhaps in the beginning of the usage. But being in the field of linguistics has convinced me that language changes, and words change in their meaning over time. What’s a swearword today is a byword tomorrow, and vice versa. Swearing is an aspect of slang, and we can see it with slang readily enough. In my high school, people said “dank” to mean “cool,” even though dank means dark, damp, and moldering. In Britain, the F-word is an agricultural term (though they knew we use it for other things).

“Go to hell” used to be the worst of epithets, because people actually meant it. Maybe a hundred years ago people heard preachers talking about hellfire and brimstone, and going to hell was the worst thing in the common mind. But nowadays I have heard it used to mean simply, “Go away (you’re bugging me)” or “I don’t want to see you again.” Even in anger, it simply means, “I wish you far away in unpleasant circumstances.” In a modern world where hell is a hotly disputed idea even in some religious circles, telling someone to go there is an ethereal concept, not a solid denouement casting someone away and leaving them to the devil alone, humanity’s greatest enemy.

When I entered high school, I had very few friends who swore, and those who did weren’t using the “really bad” ones. I was astonished that people actually used these words, and I think it caused some friends of mine to stop swearing because they weren’t sure if they were causing psychological damage! And perhaps they felt inadvertently judged. I hope not.

Of all the things I want to change in the world, swearing is low on the list. I wish we would be nicer to each other, for one—and that might solve the whole problem on its own. Then we might start speaking to one another with more forgiveness and with acknowledgment of inherent dignity.

I also understand that speech has a powerful impact on how we think. I know that we think about what we say, but that in saying it, we reshape our thoughts by the words we use. Saying something starts to make it true. Swearing can have the effect of making us believe more permanently what we’re saying in the moment.

Words are a standard by which we judge, too. Accents are a huge mark of who someone is—and if they’re in or out. Someone who swears might be “one of them,” and likewise someone who doesn’t might be a goodytwoshoes.

I don’t want people to judge others on the basis of their language any more. I don’t want people to scrunch up their faces because “she said that word.” Is that a reason to toss someone by the sidelines? Even if you think they don’t notice or that your disdain is light, it puts a rift between people and causes someone to feel unaccepted. Closed doors will shut out a lot more than a few bad words. They’ll shut out love and wisdom and people we could have learned from and been friends with.

At the same time, I wish people would be mindful of those they’re talking to, and not throw out the F-word in particular every few sentences, especially when talking to the older generations and to kids. Maybe we should stop being offended by it, but also stop offending with it. I can’t tell you whether swearing is right or wrong, but I can tell you that it can be disrespectful.

Instead of arguing and offending over such a small issue, let’s care about things that really matter, like respect, justice, and generosity. Maybe if we befriend and respect one another instead of shelter ourselves with the company of those who agree with us we will come to understand one another—and both change, for the better.

What do you think? I know many of you have kids. How do you feel about protecting your children from bad language but also acquainting them with the real world and teaching them to love the people in it? Where is the balance?