A “bad word,” of course, is a word which social custom discourages us from speaking or writing, a word such as “fuck” or “shit.” ”Bad words” are of interest to libertarians because social restrictions on communication are relevant to free speech. Although social taboos are not to be equated with government censorship, they do help teach an attitude which might justify it. This article, then, deals not with legislation against profanity and obscenity, but with the words themselves and our non-political attitudes toward them. Future laws will likely be influenced by how children today are taught to perceive these words.
It is no easy thing to define a “bad word,“ because we get little help from the words’ literal meanings. “Torture” and “murder,” for instance, are not bad words, though their referents surely are bad. Although the the word “shit” arguably refers to something bad, “shit” has many synonyms, none of them profane, e.g. excrement, fecal matter, dung, offal, etc. Why then is “shit” a bad word?
Let’s start with some history: the Norman Invasion of Britain in 1066. The Normans, although only two generations removed from their Old-Norse-speaking Viking ancestors, by this time spoke Old French. After invading Britain, they imposed their language on the native Germanic tribes.
These natives were known as Anglo-Saxons, and had what the Normans considered a much cruder language. Anglo-Saxons used medieval versions of words like “fuck” and “shit,” while Normans, heirs to Latin, could use words closer to “copulate” and “defecate.” The Normans could use words which to them sounded more clinical and less emotional, while terms like “shit” evoked the subject more viscerally. “Shit,” then, paradoxically, is a better word than its Latin synonyms, at least from the point of view of conveying meaning. Thus the badness of “bad words” starts with a political motive: the Normans, in oppressing the Anglo-Saxons, needed to believe that they were superior.
The “profane” part of “shit,” it seems, stems directly from its heightened meaning. If a student of mine, after being asked to read a certain book, says, “I hate this shit,” that student has, in a sense, introduced actual “shit” into the conversation. The problem is that shit itself is “bad” in the sense that it is foul-smelling and unsanitary, and more than words like “excrement,” it may evoke those qualities in the mind of the listener. It is also not a reasonable metaphor for a book that is in fact a good book if someone would just read it.
The same holds for “fuck.” Its referent, “sexual intercourse,” is not essentially bad, though it does entail animalistic and arguably irrational impulses. The Anglo-Saxons, with a term similar to “fuck,” harnessed the animal passion of the act, at least to the ears of the Normans. The word “fuck” became “bad,” then, when it was designated the word most evocative of the human experience of sexual intercourse.
Let’s stay with “fuck” for a moment. So great is the force of this word that European society could not, in earlier times, even tolerate its euphemisms. Christian Konrad Sprengel, German naturalist who became known in the late 18th century, was possibly the first to suggest that flowers are sexual organs. Although he used only Latinate words such as “pollinate” and “fertilize,” his study of pollination was widely considered obscene and not taken seriously during his lifetime. It seems that the concept of sexuality in a plant was upsetting enough even without Anglo-Saxon-derived “profanity.” Today, of course, it is common knowledge that a wholly female flower is in a sense a vagina, that male-only flowers are essentially penises, and hermaphroditic flowers are cocks with pussies attached that fuck themselves.
If my language seems offensive, I am only trying to make a point. Sprengel evoked at least as much offense in his time by simply describing sexual reproduction in plants. His research, though, helped to illuminate essential realities of nature, including evolution. Like some uses of “profanity” today, it was meaningful and valuable despite offending some.
I conclude the discussion of “bad words’ ” badness with a proposed rethinking of the subject for any parent or teacher who might encounter “profanity” spoken by children. This is an approach which both respects and teaches freedom of speech, something any libertarian should value.
Since the problem with “bad words” is not that they are “bad,” but that they are viscerally meaningful, care should be taken in using them. A libertarian parent or teacher does not need to restrict a child’s free speech by forbidding the use of certain words. All that is required is that the child understand the nature of the words, and their proper place in communication. The meanings and histories of such words should be taught, along with examples of appropriate usage, so that the child can make an informed choice.
Anyone interested in a more libertarian future can thus be at the forefront of expanding the next generation’s understanding of free speech and how to use it.
Doug Lasken is a retired teacher for the LA Unified School District, recently returned to coach debate, as well as a freelance writer and education consultant. Read his blog at http://laskenlog.blogspot.
Image credit to us.creativecommons.org.