Some of you have written to me and asked how I work through the “too hard” pile of things I need to come back to in the future. For me, I keep a system of thought files, on specific topics, and spend several weeks working through them, until I have nothing else to add. They may then sit there for years, until I come across something useful to understanding what is happening. This is an example of one of those thought files. It deals with the evolution of non-offensive terms into profanity and slurs. It is designed to show you the process of how I approach these things, not necessarily to represent any of my final opinions on the matters, as I am probably several years away from reaching a full understanding of the dynamics of this particular concept.
I’ve never liked cursing. It’s just not my style. To quote the great Dowager Countess, “profanity is no substitute for wit.” However, language interests me. It tells you a lot about human nature, society, culture, values, and, in some cases, the environment in which an area is located.
Given the amount of reading I do every year, including texts that are several centuries old, there is a common theme that has stuck out, always flagging attention in the back of my mind. It’s the evolution of euphemistic non-offensive terms into slurs, only to be replaced by similar euphemistic non-offensive terms, with the cycle ever-repeating.
[mainbodyad]The on-going churning of words or phrases, arising from accumulated cultural baggage, can tell you a lot about a society and human nature’s desire to ignore underlying realities. It’s almost absurd how regular this practice is, yet few people seem to notice it or when they, themselves, are taking part in the evolution of a word.
Examples are always helpful. My native country is abundant with them; given the melting pot nature of the United States population in the 19th and 20th centuries, it experienced first hand a rapid influx of this phenomenon. As Italian, German, Irish, French, Jewish, and other immigrants flooded into the nation, English, like a self-updating software program, began to organically adopt more efficient ways of communicating ideas by discarding less useful words, substituting in better ones.
An Example from German
Consider the evolution of Scheiße. The word is not offensive to English-only speaking people. It means a “piece of garbage”, or “refuse; excrement”. When Germans came to the United States, one branch of my family among them (the Strauss bloodline on my father’s side, through his mother), the seedier members of society would have cursed, exclaiming, “Scheiße!”.
Not fit for the ears of women and children, polite society urged those who would curse to use a far less offensive substitute, which is still used in Germany today: Shit.
So, the more genteel members of society did so. Hit your hand? Be polite. Don’t say Scheiße, say shit.
It only took a few generations for the native German speakers to die off before people forgot entirely that Scheiße was the bad word. With no more, higher offensive term above it, the word “shit” took on the crown of its former master and became the de facto reigning monarch in that branch of English cursing.
Today, I still cringe when I hear the word, even though it makes no sense. It is an artificial social construct. It is, in fact, a social construct that wasn’t even offensive that long ago. Yet, I still get caught off guard when I hear it. I hate even typing it. It’s lazy, not very clear, and has a high probability of alienating a given percentage of an audience, meaning your ideas are less likely to find receptive ears.
Polite society then introduced a second-tier word, to replace the loss of “shit”: “Crap” or, in some cases, “Bull Crap” or “Bull”.
And now, we’ve arrived at the point where those words are, in some quarters, considered offensive. I’ve seen parents discipline their children for using them.
It starts, again.
An Example from English
Consider another example, from native English to native English. The word “retarded” comes from an Anglo-French or Latin word “retarder” or “retardere” which means “to slow” or “to delay”. It has found its way into many languages, including Italian, where it is commonly used in music. If you see “ritardano” on an orchestral score, it means gradually reducing the tempo; retarding. Likewise, in music theory, a retardation is a type of non-chord tone.
In English, the word has been around for 225 years, first appearing in 1788.
It was for that reason that in 1895, the word “retarded” began to be used to describe those who were “slow” due to mental handicaps. It was a perfectly innocuous word that was used as a euphemism; “Timmy is … retarded” meant the same as us, today, saying, “Timmy is … slow”.
The word “retarded” was used as a replacement for offensive words such as “idiot”. It was the polite euphemism. A lot of well meaning people convinced others to use it instead of the more hurtful terms.
How did the word become offensive, to the point it is now considered a serious slur by some? Over several generations, cruel elementary school children turned a descriptive word into a weapon, calling out a feature that was different from the standard. Kids would laugh and point when the person with the mental handicap made a mistake, yelling, “Retard!”, slowly transforming it into a slur.
Those kids grew up and it spilled over into general usage for efficiency sake, becoming a way to quickly denigrate the mental competence of someone who was behaving in a non-optimal manner; e.g., a college team is drunk and one of them starts climbing a high tower, from which a fall would kill him. One of the more sober teammates yells, “Get down here! You’re being retarded.”
When a certain critical mass of cultural baggage had been achieved, the parents who found themselves having children who were intellectually handicapped chaffed at the word.
So new euphemisms arose. These differ based on your geographic area, but the most common substitute these days is “special needs”. It is young enough to be descriptive, and convey ideas, without having taken on much of the baggage of its predecessor.
That will change.
In a few decades, if the term “special needs” remains en vogue, it will be just as big of a slur as “retarded” is today. By then, it is possible that “retarded” itself will have fallen out of use entirely, and could make a rise as the less offensive term. More likely, another phrase or word will rise in its place.
The Phenomenon Can Reverse
The process can also reverse. It is possible, though rarer, for an offensive term to become a common, everyday term.
One hundred and fifty years ago, the term “Dickens”, which was used as substitute for “devil”, was offensive. For example, “Who the dickens traipsed all this mud into the foyer?”. Today, the word would be a charming anachronism with nothing offensive about it.
One hundred years ago, “balls”, short for “ballocks”, was crude. Today, most Americans would raise their eyebrows at you and think you were from Europe. There would be nothing offensive about the word anymore than “apple” or “orange”.
Fifty years ago, the term “homosexual” was often used as a slur by the news media in scandals, leading to court damages in some cases, whereas today is a completely innoculous descriptive term like Caucasian or female.
It takes time, but there are words right now that are common into more common usage. Though we aren’t there yet, there are some linguists who believe that “f**k” has become so common that is getting ingrained in the cultural language itself. Though I am not a fan of using it, for the 30-and-younger crowd, it is far less offensive as it was a generation or two ago. In most parts of the world, it isn’t even bleeped out on television, the United States being one of the lone exceptions.
Where It Gets Tricky
Things can get complicated when you have certain elements of society that insist on using out-of-date definitions.
Take the phrase “dumb” and “lame”. Unlike “retarded”, which has transformed into a legitimate slur tied to a specific group of people and used as a weapon, a small faction of people now believe dumb and lame represent the same sort of offensive wording because the former – a century ago – was used to refer to people who were mute, and the latter to those who could not walk.
The problem? An insignificant percentage of the population was alive when those definitions were used in that way. Even to my grandmothers, born in the 1930’s and 1940’s, dumb means stupid and lame means boring, whereas mute means mute and handicapped means handicapped. The terms are in no way related. The words evolved. They have no connection or connotation relating to their former usage, just like half of the words we use. The last time anyone was widely referred to as “deaf and dumb” in the archaic use of the term was Helen Keller, who was born in 1880.
This same thought process would be like insisting, “faggot is not offensive because back in 1914, it was a bad word used to speak down to a child or a woman, and before that, it meant a pile of sticks used to kindle a fire”. Yes, but neither of those definitions represent the meaning of the word today. Therefore, the word is offensive, just as retarded has become offensive. Deaf, and lame, however, are not. You will never get a significant portion of society to agree to police the latter two words. The transformation is already too complete, and too ingrained. Due to mental models, someone who insists otherwise or who advocates for change will be written off – including ignoring any valid concerns they have – making their mission more difficult. It isn’t right, but people let mere association and the horns and halo effect bleed over into everything else (e.g., “She’s so stupid, she believes X, therefore, I won’t listen to her concerns about Y,” even though Y could be perfectly valid.)
Language Evolves. It Always Has. It Always Will.
The lesson: Language evolves. To borrow from the last paragraph, two hundred years ago, Scheiße was offensive and faggot was not. Today, the opposite is true. That is reality. The meaning of words change because words don’t exist as a fixed, absolute thing.
Words represent a package of cultural ideas and associations, all wrapped up into a sound or group of symbols.
You know this on an instinctual level.
Picture the first thing that comes to mind when you see the following words:
The moment you saw the letters, your brain conjured images, associations, feelings, and visuals about what the word represented if you are like most people. The associations give the word meaning, not the other way around. That seems to be the lesson.
[mainbodyad]The moment I became convinced of this theory? I was walking somewhere and heard another person refer to Hermione Granger as a “filthy mud blood”, a completely made up term from the world of Harry Potter to describe those who were not of pure wizard blood. It’s a fictional book, dealing with a fictional character, and a fictional slang word. Yet, before my rational mind could process what was happening, I instantly had a flash of disgust and anger that someone would speak about someone else like that.
Words: Symbols, and sounds, that serve as shorthand for associations, ideas, and concepts. When the latter changes, the spirit of the former does. The word itself has no power. Words themselves have no meaning. It is the intention behind them that counts. It is how a seemingly innocent word can be turned into a weapon, and a seemingly offensive word can be used lovingly among a group of close friends.
The Internet Might Change This Pattern
There is one wildcard variable: The Internet. Travel back in time a decade. The year is 2003. I am in college. There was no YouTube. It hadn’t been invented, yet. You couldn’t just pull up a video site and see archives of news footage from back in history, or watch your favorite band when they were younger.
Now, you have access to enormous archives of recorded human speech, politics, news coverage, economic policy, music, law, art, history, etc. It is much more difficult for something to fade into memory if you can still see it; remember it.
That could be the death knell of the evolution of euphemisms into slurs but we won’t know for another few centuries.
It might also accelerate the process as words become slurs faster or become used more frequently.
It’s going to be interesting to watch.
The Questions I Still Need to Answer
The next big question:
- Who are the agents of change that introduce these language developments?
- Groups play a role – immigrants especially.
- Comedians, the modern day court jesters, also tend to wield enormous power in shaping the discussion and evaluation of a culture.
- Music, to some degree, does, but there is often a backlash by the older generations, limiting its power somewhat.
- Journalists, certainly, but they can only really do what society already reflects if they want to be taken seriously.
- Which people, and which organizations or institutions, are most responsible for driving shifts in the base language?
- What causes some concepts to catch on, and others to be ridiculed and mocked? (There seems to be a strong tie to certain biological or natural truths.)
- How could this be abused by a manipulative government or institution to implement its own policy on a society over long periods of time, against that society’s own best interests?
- The conditions of exposure probably play a significant role, as well. If a parent has a child who is mentally handicapped and, up until that point, has only ever heard “retarded” used as an insult, he or she is likely to take it as a slur. This probably plays a much larger role than is being considered in the present formula.
These are the things I need to be thinking about, identifying, and cataloging.
Just as importantly: Social programming, and decency standards, need to be studied. Although I intellectually understand that certain words are a social construct, I still get incredibly uncomfortable if I, myself, am forced to use them. Even writing some of the words for academic study in this document is bothersome. Why? Although I have no intention of changing it, nor would even consider it advisable, examine that, as well.