Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

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Archive for the tag “English language”

Potty Mouth

rememberI am scarred for life.

I have been accused of being (gasp) a Potty Mouth.

As in, “Please take me off your mailing list.  We don’t do potty mouth here.”

This, in reference to my previous post, which used the expression “fucked up my back” early on and then never used another profanity for the rest of the rant.  (Which is rare, actually.)

Oh, the shame of it.  Oh, the humiliation.  I shall never be able to show my face in polite society again.  I shall have to rend my garments and go consider the error of my ways in some damp, inhospitable cave somewhere.

I am vulgar.

What are we, seven?

Seriously.  Just the expression, “potty mouth”.  It is to roll one’s eyes derisively.

(And besides, if this guy found himself on my blog list, he put himself there.  I didn’t subscribe him without his knowledge.  Asshat.)

The thing is, I like words.  I like them pretty much indiscriminately.  The English language has a few dozen words or expressions for just about every occasion (though, yes, it does fail miserably when it comes to pronouns for those of undefined, indeterminate or intermediate gender, especially in the plural).  One can pick and choose how one wishes to express oneself.  Does one wish to be forthright but subtle?  Or does one want to take the ‘blunt instrument’ route?  Does one prefer to obfuscate?  Tippy-toe around an issue with a euphemism, more often than not verging on the ridiculous?  (Because of course humans, especially white Anglo-Saxon ones who speak English, are very frightened of some concepts to do with sex and death, and prefer to skirt the issue in a little tarantella of denial.)

These are only a few of the delightful options.

pottymouth1

I don’t like to limit my options, so I refuse to villainize one word more than another.  Especially a massively, insanely useful word like “fuck’.  Much cleverer essayists than I (among them the immortal George Carlin, who dubbed it a noble word which ought to be a proper name, as in, “I am Fuck!  Fuck of the Mountain!”) have expounded on the vast flexibility of the word fuck — it’s a noun, it’s a verb, it’s an adverb, it’s an adjective, it’s an expletive, it’s a descriptive, it’s a deed.  Fucking brilliant all ’round.  Why would we deny ourselves the use of such a crisp, easily pronounceable word with a fascinating lineage (going back to the 15th century, having crept into English from Dutch or Low German, sayeth the linguists)?

Fiddle-faddle, say I.  Horse hockey.  Um … pshaw.

Bollocks.

Oops.

Of course, I do recognize that there is a time and a place for some words.  I’ve been churning out articles for horse magazines for nigh on 20 years, and I can’t think of a single instance in which I felt compelled to make my point by resorting to ‘fuck’ or any of its vilified cousins.  I use medically correct anatomical terms, where appropriate, and since it’s not my job to opine, but to report, when I’m in journalist mode, I have little need for exclamative prose, even should my editors be inclined to publish same, which I am well aware they are not.

Most of us know which words are considered verboten and which are not.  Though really, the list is pretty arbitrary.  And it varies quite a lot from place to place.  Take the word “fanny”, for example.  In North America, it’s an innocuous, adorable euphemism for the human ass (yes, I said ass, not ‘buttocks’) …. in fact, Fanny was a common woman’s name up until the early 20th century, when it gradually fell out of favour.  But say offensivethe word “fanny” in South Africa, and you have been scandalous … there, and in some other places around the globe, it refers to the vagina and is considered a couple of levels more … cheeky.

Or watch the film, “Pirate Radio” (released in the UK and Europe as “The Boat That Rocked”).  Kenneth Branagh plays a nasty-spirited government drone intent on controlling what sort of music goes out over the airwaves in Great Britain … and one of his minions is a man with the surname, Twat.  Now “twat”, in North America, is one of those save-it-till-the-end-of-the-argument words.  Pretty inflammatory, very not complimentary, a mean-spirited crude little word.  In the UK, however, it’s a rather mild insult, on the same level (and of similar usage) as “prat”.  Needless to say, there are dozens and dozens of twat jokes all through Pirate Radio, and to the North American ear they are a little harsher than we’re used to!

The point is, what is considered vulgar or shocking or rude or offensive (or worst of all, dirty) is not fixed.  It’s as fluid as the language, which is something those with rigid rules about what is acceptable, and what is not, would do well to remember.  Before he calls me something as laughable as “potty mouth”.

Now, I am not a parent, and I’m not entirely sure how I would have handled the issue of verboten words with my hypothetical child.  My parents avoided them for the most part, but it sure as hell didn’t keep me from learning them, and using them, quite a bit more frequently than either of them do.  (It’s a generational thing for the most part.  My mother, an avowed atheist, still cringes when I say, “Christ!” more than she does when I say, “Shit!”.  Go figure.)

I smell hypocrisy in most parents who threaten punitive action if certain words come out of their offsprings’ mouths … and I certainly lux_ladydon’t want any imaginary child of mine to be afraid of language or categorize one word as more or less worthy than another.  I also hate the idea of catering to the internet trolls who appear to exist only to register how offended they are by everyone else.  Yet I recognize that social convention finds it more shocking for certain phrases to come out of a child’s mouth, even if they are the appropriate ones for the situation.

Generally speaking, I’m agin censorship and in favour of free speech.  And nowhere can I be freer with my speech than in this blog.  This is the place where I get to roll out as many fucking fucks as I want, and you don’t get to tell me not to.  This is my ranting place.  This is where I write the way I speak.  And let’s face it — would Carlin have been as funny if he had censored his language for a G-rated crowd?  Would Bill Maher?  Would Jon Stewart or Billy Connolly?  It’s the extreme quality of so-called four-letter-words that heightens the hyperbole of comedy (or, I hope, in my case, snark).  All four of these comedians have made it their business to skewer hypocrisy wherever they have found it, and that includes our use of language.  Without that freedom of speech, we’re stuck in the Catskills, going “Take my wife, please.”  Yawn.

That’s not to say that I don’t find certain turns of phrase kind of juvenile.  Toilet humour, for example, just says to me that you’re stuck in some Freudian phase of life that you were probably supposed to have progressed from.  But to each his own.  I’m not going to shy away from the word ‘fart’ just because I think your fart jokes label you tragically stuck, sniggering, in the second grade.  I just don’t buy into the idea that some words are Good and some are Bad.

It’s the users who are good or bad.  You can use words with skill and fearlessness, or you can ride your high horse onto some rigid little pathway where only a handful of words (and by extension, ideas) are acceptable, and the rest of us are labelled crude, coarse, off-colour, in poor taste, and about two dozen other judgmental things that Carlin (again) once recited in his routine on the Seven Words.

In which case, go fuck yourself.  (You knew that was coming; ferchrissakes don’t act all shocked now.)

PS — I know you’ve probably all seen versions of the video below, but I really couldn’t leave it out, now, could I.

The Unimportance of Being Earnest

The National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE) has decreed that it is “Words Matter Week 2012“.

Why?  Guess we couldn’t wait for March break for the festivities to begin.

NAIWE has posted a “Blog Challenge”, the prize for which is an Amazon gift card which is more than likely not useable by non-Americans.

So why would I bother responding to the five daily blog questions in the Blog Challenge?  Well, it: a) beats coming up with a blog topic of my own; and b) could be an interesting exercise in seeing whether I can remain sincere, earnest, and non-snarky (my money’s on ‘no’).

Ready, gang?  Of course you are.  I can see you’re on the edge of your seats.  Here are the Qs:

Monday, March 5

Writers craft words into memorable phrases, stories, poems and plays. What writers make your heart sing? Why?

Irving Layton‘s poetry is unabashedly randy.  You can imagine him flinging off his khakis and running naked through a park, little Irving flapping merrily in the breeze, just for the sheer helluvit, and that amazed and tickled me when I was an undergrad.  Who knew CanLit could be naughty?

Michael Ondaatje is hard wading, but if you’re in the right frame of mind, you can submerse yourself completely in his imagery.  Like swimming through the most gloriously textured jello.  You might only get through six pages in a sitting, but they will stick with you for days afterwards.

But I have to admit that I seek out cleverness in much of what I read.  That’s why the late Douglas Adams is still top of my list of ‘people living or dead I’d invite to my ultimate dinner party’.  You can read Hitchhiker’s 30 times and it will still give you the giggles … his turn of phrase was just that good, his logic just that twisted.  I mean:  “Here, put this fish in your ear.”  “What?  Ewww!”  “Oh, come on, it’s only a little one.”  

Pure genius in words of two syllables or less.

Cynthia Heimel, the American queen of snark, is another one, and a personal role-model.  When I dial the snark up to 11, I try to channel her.

Tuesday, March 6  
What word, said or unsaid, has or could change your life? How?

Okay, the editor in me immediately wants to change this to “What word, said or unsaid, has changed, or could change, your life?”

I mean, it’s supposed to be the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors.

But I digress.

Should I be uber-obvious and say “You won the lottery”?  Nah, I’m better than that.  (Though I really, really think it would rank up there in terms of life-changing events, and I would like to humbly encourage the universe to consider my worthiness …)

So how about “reason”, because that’s what rules my life.  Or at least I attempt to let it rule my life.  Reason, as in rejecting superstition (the preceding paragraph, ahem, notwithstanding). Reason, as in refusing to let fear rule.  Reason, as in not taking anything on faith, and not accepting faith as a virtue — at least, not the faith that demands unwavering, unquestioning acceptance of things that make no sense.  Reason, as in understanding the difference between anecdotal evidence and repeatable fact.  Reason, as in question everything.  And reason, as in presenting both (or many) sides of an argument or issue in my writing, with as little bias as I can possibly muster, and letting my readership make up its own mind.  Preferably with its critical thinking skills fully engaged. This, as I see it, is what journalists are mandated to do.

I was not always reasonable.  I had to do some growing up first to understand the difference between doctrine and truth.

Wednesday, March 7
Communication breaks down when words are misused. What is the funniest or worst breakdown you’ve ever observed?

Well, there was the flyer from the local garage promising “complete insurrections” of my truck’s engine …

And one from my editor at the Canadian Sportsman, a magazine which focuses on harness racing (in which horses move at the trot or pace) and thus rarely talks about any of the other gears an equine might display.  In an article about retired racehorses going on to second careers as riding horses, said editor used the word “cantor” throughout.  I am unclear as to the religious significance of this.  (Should I out this editor as my brother?  Nah, better not.)

Thursday, March 8
What person in your life helped you understand the importance of choosing words carefully? What would you say to them if you met them today?

If I’m a grammar Nazi, I’m mere infantry compared to my mother, who would probably not be in the least amused to be compared to the head of the Gestapo.  (Fortunately Mom doesn’t venture onto the Interwebz, having developed something of a phobia for mousing.)  Throughout my childhood, and to this day, no grammatical error ever goes unnoticed or uncorrected by her eagle ear.  She is a devotee of the English language and abhors its abuse.  In the process of this constant and unrelenting policing, she created two career journalists.  And so at some point soon (because as I say, she will not see this) … I’ll thank her for never giving me an inch, and I’ll do it in person.

Friday, March 9
If you had to eliminate one word or phrase from the English language, what would it be? Why?

I have to pick just one?

Personal pet peeves include “orientate”, “hopefully” (which is a perfectly good word, used extremely imperfectly), and “irregardless”.  That people don’t get the difference between lay and lie drives me nuts, too, though I don’t suppose you can really eliminate either one from the language …

As for phrases, “It is what it is” irritates the snot out of me.  It’s meaningless!  But the vast majority of cliches make my skin crawl, truth be told (see what I did there?).

English is a malleable magpie of a tongue.  It borrows freely from more (and less) romantic languages and scripts, and changes with the tides … you only have to read a bit of Shakespeare, or even Dickens, to see how much it has transformed in a few short centuries.  So while we can try to prevail upon it with rules and admonish those who butcher it, the reality is that it’s impossible to be too unforgiving.  What you hate today will probably be either gone, or gospel, in a decade or two.

(Did I achieve the right mix of snark and sincerity?  Do tell. And l’chaim.)

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