Sunday, January 10, 2010

Rude Words, or %#&@#!

I was watching BBQ PitMasters, a Discover channel reality-tv show (or 'docu-series') that follows some pit bosses around the competitive BBQ circuit. One of the regulars is Myron Mixon, a man who swears so frequently and casually that--on the show--there are seconds at a stretch when his lips are moving but no sound is coming out of his mouth. Which got me to thinking about dirty words, the taboo words that you (normally) leave out of technical writing.

Like everything else, taboo words are driven by your audience rather than anything innate in the words: "Dirty words" are only dirty to a particular audience. And, even then, the words are only offensive to that audience at a particular time or in a particular place.

For instance, time changes offensiveness. The "C word", as we now call it (and I'm one of those people who find the word embarrassing to use) is a great example. The word was in common usage (and, apparently, no more offensive than "penis") up until the 1700s. Then people stopped using the word for awhile (who knows why). When people picked the word up again, it was as an offensive word. "Ods bodkins" (a euphemism for "God's little body") used to be very offensive. Now it is not only no longer offensive, it will actually cause people to laugh at you if you use it.

Geography also affects offensiveness, even among people sharing a common language. Apparently, in Scotland, a sizable percentage of the population uses "the C word" as a term of approval (at least, that's what I took away from reading "Trainspotting"). A friend of mine who grew up in Canada used the word "fanny" when telling in a joke in England and discovered that, while Canadians use "fanny" to as a euphemism for buttocks, Brits use it as a substitute for "the C word." I don't find the word "bloody" offensive but, 10 or 20 years ago, I was able to shock a cousin-in-law who grew up in England by using it.

What is constant about taboo words is that they be emotionally satisfying. This means that taboo words are not necessarily used in a logical or even reasonable way. In "The Stuff of Thought", Steven Pinker points out that "The f***king cat" is not "a cat who is f***king." Yet we find it emotionally satisfying to use the word even though we don't wish the cat to be doing it (it's not really a bad thing to wish on the cat). The reason, Pinker suggest, relates back to the "Ods bodkins" issue and the way taboos change over time.

"Damned", like "ods bodkins"  is (or was) an offensive word on the basis of religion (provided, of course, you're Christian--people don't find terms from other people's religions either offensive or emotionally satisfying: even Protestants and Catholics often have different taboo words). Not long ago we would have said "That damned cat" meaning "a cat who is damned"--which is a bad thing and was emotionally satisfying. Over time, we've moved from religion-based offensive words to sexually-based ones (the reasons for which I'm not going to speculate on). In order to get the emotional satisfaction we need out of our taboo words, we removed "damned" from "That damned cat" and popped in "f***king"--which, while not a bad thing, is emotionally satisfying (at least, currently). That emotional satisfaction is paramount and trumps logic or sense.

The replacement of "damned" with "f***king" isn't the only change we've seen in taboo words related to sexual matters within in my lifetime. I read "The Moving Toyshop" by Edmund Crispin, written in 1946, and was shocked (!shocked!) when the main character referred to the woman who cleaned his house as a "slut." Sixty years later, I assume that a modern Brit would call a woman who cleans his house as a "char" or "charwoman"--or even a "cleaning lady": we've lost the ability to use the word "slut" to refer to cleaning staff. Pepys used "slut" in this sense the middle 1600's and, I grant you, it's possible that using the word to mean "char" was already out of fashion when Crispin used it in his book (the book is intended to be funny). But, even if Crispin intended to be funny with "slut" in 1946, I suspect that, today, that's no longer possible.And I won't discuss another book from England written before the Second World War where one of the characters had "recently given up whiskey and fags."

And, by the way, while I've been using the British for examples many of our offensive words aren't particularly Anglo-Saxon. "Piss", for instance, comes from French and Latin ("pissare" and "pisser").

What does this have to do with technical writing? Not much, except the usual one: everything is driven by your audience--including the meanings of the words you use. I'm not suggesting that you throw away your dictionary. But what the dictionary says about a word isn't nearly as important as what your readers say. And, if the very meanings of the words are controlled by your readers, think of the impact that they have on the topics you choose, the way you organize your material, the way you explain it, ....

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