Gosh, Darn, Fudge! What makes a “bad word” bad?

I remember the first time I said the “f” word.

I was three or four, and I was making up a song about huckleberries.  Only I thought they started with a different letter.

That was also the summer I heard somebody use that word for real. The neighbour girl and I were on my back deck eating popsicles and making up silly names at each other.  The game suddenly turned ugly when Janelle pulled out “effing a-hole”; my mom heard through the window, and that was the end of play time for that afternoon.

I understood that Janelle had said something bad. But I didn’t understand why it was bad – why was it okay to call somebody a “silly winkerbean”, but what Janelle had said would call down a full-on Ivory mouth-scrub?

I still wonder about this today. What makes a swear word so bad? Why is it acceptable to say “frick” in a restaurant, while the “real” f word would earn you dirty looks from the family at the next table?  Why is it okay for an unhappy child at school to tell me he is having a crappy day, while telling me that his day is s****y would cause me to tell him to watch his language?

Language is symbolic, right – the written/spoken word merely stands for, or denotes, whatever it is that is being talked about.  For example, if I type the word D-O-G, you would understand it to mean a furry, four-legged creature wagging its tail.  You wouldn’t just think of a D and an O and a G grouped together on a piece of paper.  But I digress.

So if words are symbolic, don’t “crap” and s*** symbolize the same thing?  Why then is one expression deemed okay, while the other is generally considered taboo?

Here’s another thing I don’t get – context matters so much in determining the vulgarity of the word.  I find it so paradoxical (and kind of hilarious) that we can sing What Child Is This in church at Christmas, where it talks about the asses sleeping in the stable (and we can do it with straight faces too! – despite a few sniggers from the 7-20 year old crowd), but if anyone were to afterward say “ass” in any other context, there would be a lot of offended churchgoers.  It’s the same word! And it’s not even the fact that someone’s posterior is being talked about in church – because I have yet to see an eyelash bat at either “bum” or “butt” in any informal religious setting.

I also find it strange that I can go to a movie and hear the f word tossed around for an hour and a half by all the main characters, but if I were to go to Starbucks later on and the two guys at the table next to mine were using the same word in a Tourette-like manner, I would likely be slightly offended – while swearing does not directly offend me, it does bother me when people like these imaginary Starbucks-goers have no regard for others around them who might find their language offensive.  It’s just inconsiderate.

Conversely, if I went out to a sports bar instead of Starbucks, my level of offendedness would likely be somewhat less severe at the same two imaginary guys. Clearly there is an incongruity here, but I am at a loss to explain where it comes from.

I once went to a family reunion in Fort St. John, BC with a whole bunch of my Mennonite relatives.  Mennonites are, as you may have guessed, rather staunchly on the more conservative side when it comes to language.  However, this family reunion took place near a lake, which was partly formed by a giant dam, and part of the afternoon’s activities consisted of a tour of it.

Nope, not my family. But it looks like they're about to go on a dam tour, too...

“We’re going on a dam tour!”  said the Mennonites, “What time does the dam tour leave?”  And the jokes kept coming and apparently never got old.

But wait a minute, was it a dam tour or a damn tour my relatives were so excited about?  Weren’t they really swearing, but just in disguise?  Well that, of course, is a matter of interpretation.

That’s the thing about language though.  It’s symbolic, it’s subjective, and it’s open to interpretation. Going back to my D-O-G example from earlier, while one person might think of a friendly cocker spaniel with a tennis ball in its mouth, someone else might picture a large angry german shepherd poised to attack.  The word “dog” symbolizes something very different for each of these people, but neither interpretation is wrong.

So because its words are subjective, its impossible to explain why calling somebody a silly winkerbean is much nicer than an effing a-hole, when the meaning and intent behind the words is exactly the same.  It’s impossible to explain why “ass” is okay in the Christmas song, and why some people don’t mind if their child says “crap” while others would keep a bar of soap on hand for just such a word.

Language is subjective, so although culture and worldview will certainly influence any word’s meaning, individual interpretation will always ultimately be central.  What makes a “bad word” bad is ultimately up to you.

So now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of freaking crap I have to get done today; I’ve already spent too much dang time writing this blog.


4 thoughts on “Gosh, Darn, Fudge! What makes a “bad word” bad?

  1. LOL. Love this Jenae. And you are so right. It is VERY subjective. For me, I find it is often the tone that the F word is spoken in. Usually it is either angry or dismissive or just filler in a sentence: “F, I was F’in going and F F”. So as filler it is just annoying. In an angry or dismissive tone it is impolite. It is harsh that way.

    But in a happy way, as in: “Fuckin’ A! Good job buddy!” Then I find it crass, but not offensive. I don’t know. It’s very interesting. I don’t mind swearing occasionally and in context. But all the time and in an angry voice it bothers me. Or in public, yes, that does annoy me. But I swear (but not in public!), So am I a hypocrite? I don’t know. I don’t like the word crappy actually…so…?

  2. Derrida has some interesting thoughts on this, and you have basically boiled down some of the foundational principles of post-structuralism here. Words, in and of themselves, actually have NO meaning at all. They are merely the functional stand-ins for ideas which NEVER exist in isolation… all meaning is chained to other meaning. That is to say that any word’s meaning is defined by the context in which it’s used both linguistically (the words around it) and situationally (the greater conversational context). Meaning is never static, either, it is always being pushed and pulled and tweaked by context as well. The implications of this idea, if you follow the rabbit hole, can be pretty terrifying sometimes. 😉

  3. I find it odd how that people use the word “mofo” and suddenly there accused of using the real word and it’s funny because like I think you’ve only said a bad word if you meant to say it and if you knew what it meant. Also, I don’t think “mofo” is a bad word because it’s a word some teens made up for the real word so it means that it isn’t a word. No?

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