Friday, May 19, 2017

In Praise of Bad Words

I'm pretty squeamish about language.  So much so, that when the first child was ready for potty training, I had to train myself to say "poop" out loud.  I was raised by a mother who said things like "Like fun, you will!" and "He's out fruiting around." And before the birth of this oh-so-educational firstborn, Jim and I tried out "monkey" as a substitute for uncouth sayings ("That's just monkey." "What a load of monkey meat!")

 But in spite of all of this, there are moments in my life when I need something stronger. I need one of those words we don't let out in polite company, or possibly ever. There are situations where I can't help feeling that one of them would not just be most satisfying, it would be the most honest and appropriate thing to say.  And I'm guessing I'm not the only one.

When the moment happens--when the very surprising, or aggravating, or painful thing happens, or when I feel a deep need to say, "I really mean it," I consider my options.  And it's usually the audience, and not my inner moral compass, that decides it.  I'm pretty sure potty training itself changed me.  My vocabulary now includes a few terms more serious than "poop."

There are, of course, things I won't say.  There are two categories, actually. The first group is profanity--things I actually do say, but in happier contexts, words for God. The best I can reason, using the name of God in that way is a devolved form of oath-taking, where God is used as the "guarantee" to vouch for one's honesty. At best, this makes the name of God something frivolous or common (the essence of "profane" or as Exodus says, "vain").  At worst, it equates Him with something bad or unpleasant, which is against my religion.

The second category is words that refer to sex.  This, in a sense, is against my faith, too.  The same word should not mean "to have sex with" or "to harm." I don't use the "f" word, not because I think we shouldn't talk about sex, but because I think we shouldn't talk about it that way. The theology in which sex is a good metaphor for cheating, misleading, or hurting someone, is all kinds of messed up, and I won't support it..

So what's left?  Not a lot that would get bleeped out of broadcast TV. But still a few things I don't want my kids saying (at least, not yet),even if they are in the Bible.  How, then, do I justify it? If the words I choose might offend someone, shouldn't I just decide never to use them? Does any good ever come from strong language?


Beyond the fact that I actually feel better saying it out loud, and the excuse of the Apostle Paul's example, there is strange and unique form of honesty in bad language. In the right context, with the right audience, it can be bonding, even healing.

The other day, Jim got off the phone with a friend and said, "I'm glad X is comfortable enough to use bad words around me." X was carrying a lot of frustration--the words were a sign that he wasn't sugar-coating things.  Using them when talking to his pastor was a mark of his trust.

In lighter situations, a colorful word can be a signal, like a movie reference, or the number 42.  It's a way to say I'm being real,  I have often felt instantly safer around someone because of less-than-white-washed language.  And I have a few friends I take care to sometimes use a low-filter word or two around.  I am showing them that I'm not putting on a face for them.  They're talking to the real me.

In fact, when it's used right, strong language marks a kind of intimacy.  Just like any other kind of intimacy, I reserve it for certain people and certain times. But I need a space in my life where I can say it the way it feels.

 I'm glad I have that space, and I hope you do, too.  Because somewhere in the future there's a counter corner at elbow level, a lost car key, or a broken heart with your name on it.  Because there ought to be people in your life who want to hear it as bad as it feels.  Because sometimes you need the freedom to call crap by its right name.

1 comment:

  1. Love it! My older friend always says 'Good Gravy' - makes me giggle!