Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Dirty words

I began work on this post some time ago, but in light of current events, I thought it would be a good time to finish it up and get it out there.

Dirty words are stupid. I don't just mean the unnecessary use of them is stupid (which it is), I mean that the idea that certain words are vulgar or offensive and should not be used is stupid. Words are, by definition, simple linguistic constructs that have no meaning unless one is agreed upon. All of these words have definitions -- often sexual, racist, scatological, etc. -- but these meanings are barely understood anymore due to the stigma of their use. Many of them are also used figuratively to provide pejorative emphasis, and can be an effective and valid means of conveying ideas in such context, and to remove them from the permissible vernacular is no better than diluting their meaning through over-use. The use of censorship, even self-censorship, rather than one's own judgement in communication only causes problems.

Another oft-ignored meaning that they have is what they say about those who use them. While their use alone doesn't make an individual stupid, inappropriate or excessive use certainly demonstrates a lack of eloquence. Some are virtually meaningless beyond demonstrating the prejudice of the speaker. Epithetical remarks such as those for which Michael Richards has been receiving flak could just as easily be cognitively replaced with the phrase "I'm a racist". Beyond that, all that he stated was that the individuals that he was addressing were black, a fact of which I'm sure they where aware, and their reported attempt to extort money from a man who pointed out that they black and admitted to being racist is no less shameful.

Words have meaning because we give them meaning. They have no meaning that we don't give them, and we have no power that they don't give them, and it's foolish to give them the power to harm us.

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