Monday, February 28, 2011

The power of words

WARNING: I cuss like a sailor who has missed their boat and dropped an anchor on their foot. This post has evidence of that. Ye be warned.

The first time my sister said F*$! we were watching Forrest Gump. She was six years old. But before you get your undies in a knot, I would like to make this understanding - yes, my parents let me and my sister watch Forrest Gump at the age of eight and six, respectively. We also were allowed to watch movies like The Color Purple, Jaws, and Indiana Jones (especially love the part when the guy’s face melts off in Raiders). I am grateful my parents did not sensor such films from us. It didn’t render my IQ and I didn’t develop an obsession with guns. If anything it fueled my passion for watching a story unfold. Movies helped me feel. Aww, precious.

Back to the F word. It was the scene where Forrest was about to be forced into speaking at the Vietnam rally, and the guy on stage was saying “F this, and F that.”

There was my little sister, nestled on the couch in her cloud of innocence, “What does fuck mean?”

The silence was heavy. The kind of silence that says everything and nothing. Minds were sprinting but mouths were still. One of those moments where anger doesn’t feel right, but neither does laughter. It’s a distinct form of shock, in the simplest of terms, and that was exactly the look on my parents’ face.

I, on the other hand, was already developing my tender sense of smartassery at the delicate age of eight. I started laughing. Hard. And said, “You don’t know what it means?!” Then all eyes were on me. “Ellen, do you know what that means?”


I didn’t know what fuck meant. All I knew was the “F word” was bad... and before this moment I didn’t even know what the F word was. My parents handled the situation as I imagine most would, “That’s a bad word. You’re not supposed to say that word.” They weren’t harsh, but firm - driving the point home that you can’t throw around the word fuck the same way you would banana or lasso. My sister and I both understood the message. Don’t say fuck. Got it.

Still though, it’s enough to question, what is a “bad” word? What makes a word bad or good? Who decides? All words come from the same pool of letters. Fuck is four letters, just like bird and wave. Why isn’t “bird” a bad word?

Let’s try: I birding hate you! Yeah, well bird you too, lady! Get the bird out of here! He birding shot me! I can’t believe that mother birder birding shot me!

Doesn’t quite pack the same punch, does it? And you know why? We don’t give “bird” the same amount of power that we give “fuck.” Typically when one hears the word bird, or ball, or pear, or whatever, no one’s attention is put on high-alert. It makes me wonder, if my parents had told us “fuck is just an expression. Something people say, but not very often,” would my sister and I still have felt so captivated by the F word? Would we have gone on without even realizing how powerful that word is?

Words have power because we give them power.

We can’t erase the power these words have been given. We can’t undo it. We can’t trade fuck for bird. We also can’t invent new “bad” words. There is a set of words that have power, and that’s it. You can’t just let anyone into that club, or else it wouldn’t be exclusive. It’s a club that way.

We can’t take away their power... but that doesn’t stop people from trying.

One time I had a professor forget their jump drive at home - the jump drive that secured the powerpoint lecture for the day. There was a lot of material to cover and it was a big chapter to push through. But alas, the lecture was far far away. And what words did my professor use to describe this moment of frustration and annoyance? ... “Shucky Darn”... I kid you not. This was a woman who lived during the time of the hippies, had some INCREDIBLE research credited to her name, was regarded as a figure head of science and knowledge in the state, and was one of the most profound people I have ever met. And she just said “Shucky Darn.”

Did “shucky darn” adequately express how she felt? To me, it seemed obvious it did not. I was laughing, as were my classmates, because it seemed so childish. Like someone saying “darn it” and “what the frick.” Come on people, say damn and fuck and let it go. These words exist for a reason. We gave them power as a tool for people to articulate their feelings and to snap people’s attention.

However, powerful words are not limited to the “bad” words. The same exists for words like hate and stupid.

You’ll let your kid call someone or something stupid? But you won’t let them say shitty? Scroll on any teenager’s facebook and you’ll see “gay” and “retard” being used for an umbrella of adjectives. But these words aren’t solely used by the kiddies either. Hearing a middle aged man say “that’s retarded” and “don’t be a fag” is much harder to swallow than “that’s fucked up.” At least when you say fuck or shit or another “bad” word you’re not saying something derogatory towards a group of people. When I say "shit" I am not unintentionally bashing every piece of feces on the planet.

Think about what words can achieve and the emotions they evoke. As much energy that we focus on the "bad" words it's easy to forget the power of "smaller" words. You wouldn't think that the word "God" or "under" have that much power... but look what happens when you try to take those two little words out of the Pledge of Allegiance. That's a whole other brand of power to be left for another post. (Trivia: "under God" was added to the Pledge in 1954)

We use words everyday as a way to communicate. Even though words are less than half the conversation - there are voice inflections, body language, and again, another post for all that - we pick our words the best we can. Some people make a stronger effort than others. I know way too many people who have "amazing" and "awesome" and "lame" as their only descriptive words.

Words have their meanings, and more noticeably, they have their power. Use with caution.

1 comment:

  1. I love this and appreciate your perspective.