Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bad Words

What do you think of when you hear the word woodlouse?

It seems that for most people I tell, woodlice are bad things. It might bring up images of some blood sucking insect that you might accidentally pick up while you're out hiking around Lake Fayetteville.

But here's what a woodlouse looks like.

"But wait" you say, "that's a roly poly!"  Yes, it is a roly poly.  But its real name is "woodlouse."

This is the kind of problem we have when we start telling people that words are bad.  They are not.  A word cannot be bad, it is simply a way of recording a sound on paper by using a set of established rules on how sounds are to be recorded in text.  Even the sound has no inherent good or evil to it.  It is simply a sound or set of sounds traditionally used to denote a certain meaning.

There are no bad words.  Swear words are not bad, they're just a class of words people have defined (arbitrarily) as having some value they don't and can't have.

Here in Arkansas, I get the same thing with the word "liberal."  I have a friend who for years has disdainfully called me a liberal over and over again.  We were having dinner with his parents a few weeks ago and he told them that he used to think I was a liberal, but now he knows I'm really not.  Excuse me?  I am most definitely liberal, progressive even, politically, economically, socially, etc.  But it really revealed something to me.  He doesn't use the word liberal to describe something liberal, he uses the word liberal to describe something he disagrees with.  He's caricaturing me, describing me using hot button words well known among his people to attach negative aspects to me whether or not they actually exist.  For them, "liberal" is used like when I use "ignorant."  Except ignorant in the context I use it is used to ascribe ignorance, whereas they use liberal not to describe a set of ideologies or philosophies, but to ascribe all around disdain.

I am reminded of South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut where Cartman calls Kyle a stupid f***ing Jew.  Later, he apologizes and says Kyle isn't really a Jew after all.  But Kyle is a Jew!  Not in the sense of the negative racial stereotype that Cartman is using, but in the sense that his family is Jewish.  Naturally, Cartman simply can't fathom how this works.

Be careful with your words.  Be an honorable linguist, don't use words to label people.  Use the proper definitions of words to communicate ideas and identify the truth.


No comments: