Language is an incredibly powerful tool. Despite floating between linguistic anthropology and anthropological linguistics – two fields that desperately need to kiss and make-up, I never really noticed how we look down on others for their use of language. People are categorised by their accents, while others are judged by their primary language. Most American girls fall head over heals to listen to a guy with a “proper” English accent, but they might be a bit baffled by someone like Ross Noble with a Geordie accent. Those in America with Southern accents are portrayed to be stupid.

I really should have seen it earlier, but my mind pitifully sorted information to some dark corner to come back to at a later date. I’ve read before that many of our “bad” words come from Germanic languages. Another interesting piece of information is something that I learned from the brilliant show Quite Interesting, so I definitely need to check out some sources; it was stated that our use of cow and beef (and other animals) come from historical classist roots, where the Germanic languages are used for the animals and the French became the etymology for the food. It’s all very interesting, really.

But I’ve been seeing this more recently during our school’s meetings to “change the culture,” a phrase that seems politely degrading. It grates my nerves with things like “I’m religious for the morals” and “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter;” I have morals without being religious, and the margarine isn’t playing an awkward game of peekaboo with me.

The first part to “changing the culture” is to alter the language. It’s hard to disagree that my students have atrocious language, considering I’ve been at the end of “fuck you, bitch” more than once. I listen to (and correct) horrible racial slurs and derogatory slang daily, where very few seem to show any bit of tolerance for those who are unlike themselves. It leads people to question whether or not they really know what they’re saying. Chances are, you can shake a Magic 8-Ball to figure that out. (Reply hazy, try again.)

Except, no one is looking at our students’ “real” culture. They’re not looking at their backgrounds, their ambitions, or how they see themselves. Like most educators, the people I’m working with are looking at two things: What are the students expected to become, and what is the environment that the adults prefer.

It’s somewhat insulting, too. During our meeting, I posed an innocent question: What about the use of “damn” and “hell?” These words are, compared to others, quite tame. For us Americans, the FCC actually allows them on television whilst bleeping every other “bad” word out for us. Honestly, it’s a miracle we even still have words like lower-class or socialism without getting censored, but I digress. The point is that these words are harmless, much like others, until they are pointed at someone. Insultingly and without any thought, everyone immediately responded: A bad word is a bad word, no matter how you look at it. Is it? Really?

Except not all “bad” words are used badly, like they want to assume they are. Let’s take a few scenarios:

  1. My co-worker is fired for leaving phone messages on post-it notes, despite the boss saying he dislikes it. I think this is absurd because her work was simply amazing. In a rush to argue my point to my boss, I end a debate with this line: She was a damned good employee! It emphasises both my displeasure with his antics and my belief that she was a competent employee who did nothing but wonderful things. Imagine it if I stopped with the more tame version: She was a very good worker! It lacks that personality of being enraged with my boss’s poor decision and, really, seems wishy-washy. Was she a good worker? Oh, very. Personally, I just can’t say that it fits.
  2. My friend has just finished a presentation, probably on the mating habits of the mythical Jackalope. Whatever the topic, he lets out a sigh of relief once he completed it. I walk up to him and, being impressed by his ability to confidently deliver his research, tell him how I felt: That was one hell of a presentation! The other option is to say something like That was a brilliant presentation! Or I could change the wording to tell him What an amazing presentation! The whole situation would be dependent on what kind of smile (including the eyes) was given at the time of the congratulations and what personality I tend to exhibit. For me, the last two feel quite formal and stuffy while the first feels informal and warm.
  3. Something slightly obnoxious occurs, like your sidekick is running two hours late to help you rescue people in a crashing spaceship because he’s too busy getting a Brazilian (wax, not person). You’re annoyed, you’re scathing, and you’re loudly mumbling to yourself. Rather than getting wordy with him, you’re repeating Damn it all! with every attempt at getting the passengers out of the malfunctioning spacecraft. It’s a perfectly functional form to use when frustrated. You’re not pleased with the situation, and it shows. Anything less expressive would be a bit awkward.

Clearly, these aren’t the only available situations that using “damn” or “hell” can occur. What’s frustrating is that they colour the mood and the context. I can’t see anything wrong with using them in nearly any environment within reason, so long as no one is being told to “go to hell” or “damn you.”

Except it brings to light the issue of class, which I’ve already mentioned. Are you going to hear this among those of the upper-class and bureaucrats? Probably not in public. How often does anyone in Congress slip up and say this while at work (or while wasting time and taxes listening to themselves chit-chat and making things progressively worse – and yes, I am bitter)? We see this mostly out of people who arrive from the middle- and lower-classes. That sort of language is, unfortunately, associated with being “less educated.” Instead of seeing it as part of the language that should be used, we pretend that people who use it lack vocabulary. Well, I like to use these so-called “bad” words, and I can be as verbose as the next person.

It all just makes me wonder: Why are these “bad” words really so awful? Do people automatically assume that they’re being used at people rather than to describe or emphasise something? And if people aren’t lacing every sentence with them, what is the true issue?

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