19 May 2010

What's the Good Word?

I love words. American English is rich with words for almost any conceivable thought, it seems. We embrace other cultures' words and expressions and adapt and adopt them as our own, making our language as rich, beautiful and varied a tapestry as our human population. We have Americanized our root British English until the Brits hardly recognize it. In addition, each generation gives old words new meanings, or creates all new words to express new ideas. We are wealthy with words.

There are scholars who can express ideas clearly and make their knowledge accessible to readers. There are entertainers whose choice of words make us laugh or cry or think. We are won with words, and words inspire us. We get caught up in a movie when the dialogue seems real to us. We remember the words of songs which express an emotion in a pure and pleasant way. We keep love letters near our hearts.

This is why I am appalled by the trend, currently, in the use of vulgar expression as a place-holder for the well chosen word. What happens to language when even intelligent people are content to string immodest and shocking language together for effect rather than use an appropriate word or set of words? We hold responsible jobs, love our families, are good citizens, and contribute to good causes, but our speech and humor is digressed to a place where we snicker over mentions of bodily functions and sexual organs. Didn't we outgrow that in grade school? Isn't this where the words sophomoric, adolescent, and juvenile received their negative connotations? Children innocently (and nervously) giggle over such because it is provocative and personal territory. Presumably we learn to treat such topics maturely and sensitively as we grow up. Or not.

I listened to an audiobook recently on a road trip that was a case in point. The piece was meant as a humorous summary view of American Democracy. It was basically intelligent and witty. It would have been a more enjoyable light commentary on the foibles of modern government, except that the author inserted the occasional asides that were so gratingly vulgar (and unnecessary) that I cringed at the sound of them, and subsequently found myself dreading the next one. Why was this necessary? A society which encourages a shorthand use of shock to replace truly well-thought out and clever language has sold itself cheaply. It replaces the need for talent with a lazier, sloppier lacing together of shock words to garner cheap laughs.

From humor the habit descends further. Serious works of fiction have characters use expletive language to set a tone of toughness, or to indicate forcefulness of emotion. Admittedly on occasion, the character portrayed is meant to be as mean and vulgar as the language indicates. If this is clearly the case, some allowance may be made. After all, the language should match the character. My objection here is that generally decent or well-educated or intelligent characters seem to use the same shorthand of expression. What is the point of that?

There is a danger, as with colloquial language in general, of using the same five or six words to express all manner of thought and emotion. We become less clear, we strain our listeners, and we fail to communicate real feelings. How often have we wriggled in our seats as a speaker uses such verbal place-holders as uh, um, dude, man, like, so, among others, in a public address? We silently judge the speaker's ability and experience based on such labored delivery. I find reliance on the limited vocabulary of vulgarities similarly tedious.

When the five or six words are meant to be vulgar - were developed with no other object in mind but to startle or shock - the purpose in their use becomes obvious. The speaker (or writer) prefers to be offensive. When we accept such offense, when we laugh or praise such writing and speech, we perpetuate the practice. Perhaps we are afraid to appear unsophisticated, prudish or naive. In such cases, the word-bullies win: we have allowed users of profane or shocking speech to dictate the quality of communication for us all.

In formal address, in published writing, in conversation at the water cooler, harsh and unimaginative profanity has become more and more prevalent, more and more accepted. Let's stop allowing ourselves to be verbally battered by the few who cannot rise to civilized speech.

Our ears will thank us. And so, by the way, will our children's.

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