It goes without saying

There’s a sort of leering hypocrisy in the public discussion of slurs and obscenities.

Every age has its standards of taste and permissibility in discourse. It changes with time, and that’s generally okay. We euphemize what we don’t want to say directly, and that’s okay too, if it’s done with tact. But I don’t think it is any more.

In the heart of the Watergate scandal, when the Nixon tapes were finally made public, the press was saddled with the task of conveying the president’s profanity-laced private discussions to American readers. That kind of language was (and at least partly still is) unacceptable in mainstream media. Their solution was to omit the profanity and note the omission with “[expletive deleted]“, and though that became sort of a joke over time, it was successful at protecting the sensibilities of the reader.

Now it’s done differently. The media still can’t say the words, but they are nonetheless intent on putting them in your mind so that you know exactly what words they mean. At first this was done by using Nixon-style substitutions that were clear from context, like “[ethnic slur]” or “[a sexual act]“, but I guess even that was not specific enough. Now we have precise euphemisms for the exact word. Forty years ago someone’s epithet might have been reported as “expletive deleted” but today the newsreader will report it as “the N-word.”

N-word? F-word? S-word? Seriously? What are we, six years old? Am I the only one who’s reminded of the school tattletale, running to the teacher to gleefully rat out her schoolmate and get the vicarious thrill of allowable semi-swearing? “Miss Grundy, Miss Grundy! Joey said the N-word!!” This is saying it without saying it, and Miss Grundy knows it, and so should we.

Chris Rock had a good point about that, responding to white people complaining about a word they can’t say. His response was, “Why would you want to?” Well, why would you? Why would anyone want to euphemize any of those words with such precision that the euphemism is exactly interchangeable with the offensive word it replaces? If you disapprove of a word, and you don’t want to convey that meaning, then don’t work so hard to put it in people’s minds.

Aside from the hypocrisy and elementary-school inanity of the “Letter-word” construction, there are two practical issues to consider. One is that we only have so many letters, and the profanity lexicon doesn’t oblige us by assigning only one swear per initial; they’re getting used up. “F-word” used to mean one thing, but now it can mean either of two things, which may be why one of them is becoming “F-bomb.” “F-bomb” has a sort of hip snobbery to it, as if to say: I’m not offended by this word, and I know you the reader are not either, but due to those other prudes we have to bleep it out. That handles F, for now, but what about the P-word? I can think of at least three different P-words that you can’t say on television. Yet.

The other problem is euphemism creep. People are always trying to control other people’s thinking and expression by controlling what words they’re allowed to say. You can change people’s language through social penalties, but it’s a lot harder to change their thoughts, and so what happens? The kind euphemisms of yesterday become the cruel epithets of today. “Retarded” is now “the R-word,” but a generation ago “retarded” was the nice thing to say, instead of “moron” or “imbecile.” And those words in turn were previously neutral technical terms designed to spare sensitivities that might be offended by words like “idiot” or “cretin.” So what’s going to happen in ten or twenty years, when “N-word” and “F-word” and so on are actually hurled as insults by real bigots instead of smirking look-what-I-didn’t-say newsreaders? When “N-word” is an actual insult, what will the euphemism for it be? “N-W-word”? They’re painting themselves into a corner.

It comes down to this. If someone is on television trying to put offensive words in your mind on purpose, and evade responsibility for putting them there by resorting to baby-talk euphemism, they’re giving you the finger. And it doesn’t matter if it’s blurred out; you should still recognize it. Turn them off.

7 Thoughts on “It goes without saying

  1. Was it here, or somewhere else, there was a discussion of the origin of “cretin”? How it is French for “Christian” (without the circumflex that replaced the S at some point), and was originally a reminder to the cruel that the differently-intelligenced or whatever were people too? So, originally a “nice” word.

  2. Recte: I meant of course an older French, not modern French, which is chr├ętien.

  3. Reif on July 18, 2013 at 8:46 am said:

    It is my firm belief that some words should be permanently excised from all languages. The N-word really offends me, regardless of whoever is using it. It doesn’t belong in music, comedy, drama, or any other media. It just doesn’t belong. To me, there is no greater display of hate and ignorance. It has to go. I have nephews and nieces whose music is disgustingly replete with this horrible, hurtful word. If it served any artistic purpose, it would still be offensive. We would all be better of without it.

  4. Reif on July 18, 2013 at 4:30 pm said:

    True enough, and I know we’ll never lose every offensive word…..

    • dwasifar on July 19, 2013 at 7:04 pm said:

      It’s not the word that’s inherently offensive, it’s the idea behind it. That’s why changing language doesn’t fix anything, and why “N-word” and “F-word” will eventually wind up becoming the very insults they’re intended to conceal.

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