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What Words to Say, What Sort of Person to Be

Mark Bauerlein, in a recent post on our sister blog The Conversation, made an interesting remark about a couple of students who defended their use of a certain obscene expletive in class:

I was astonished to hear two of the brighter students in the class arguing for its use as a singularly expressive token. When I raised the issue of propriety, they claimed that any stigma was just a generational thing, and that when their generation matures, the F-word and other expletives will have normal status.

The word in question—the principal obscene word of the English language, the one that begins with a voiceless labiodental fricative—cannot be named here, because The Chronicle maintains strict New York Times policy on profanity: It “virtually never prints obscene words, and it maintains a steep threshold for vulgar ones.” Furthermore, it “forgoes offensive or coy hints” with “telltale strings of hyphens or dashes.”

We linguists chafe under such restrictions. Telling me that I cannot even mention the word that I want to discuss, even if I carefully insulate it from my text by italicization, is like telling a medical professional that he is not allowed to remove any of the clothing that conceals the nether regions of his patients. If I am not going to be allowed to see the festering boil on your bottom, I can neither lance it nor make the call on whether you need antibiotics.

But although I wish I could mention obscene words when necessary to talk about their properties, that doesn’t mean I’m some kind of crazed radical who has no standards about their use. Bauerlein says he is highly dubious about permitting the word in question in a class discussion, and I am very much inclined to agree with him.

I can’t agree with him, however, on what’s wrong about his students’ views. He says of the class discussion:

I let the issue drift because I saw no educational gain at that moment in raising the deeper assumption and asking, “Are you aware of how grandiose it sounds for individuals just out of high school to predict the future of culture so firmly and confidently?”

I don’t think that’s the really important deeper issue (though I agree that it’s pretty arrogant for 19-year-olds to be telling a middle-aged humanities professor about the future evolution of language and culture). The really important deeper issue relates to the fact that the student is dead wrong. That particular obscene word will not come to “have normal status.” It can’t. Or at least, if it ever did, we’d have to develop a new and more shocking word that didn’t, and couldn’t.

It was Geoffrey Nunberg who convinced me of this, in this post on Language Log. He was talking about ain’t, as used by educated people to emphasize the down-home, earthy character of some elementary truth. (“Meaning just ain’t in the head,” wrote the philosopher Hilary Putnam, emphasizing that externalism about semantics wasn’t some arcane doctrine, but a commonsense one.) Nunberg’s point generalizes. The whole point of the word people now lamely refer to as “the F-word” is to shock the F out of people. If it ever acquired “normal status” in conversation, it would have lost its purpose and would be nothing more than a pointless time-filler. It has to have nonnormal, rough, shocking, semi-obscene status. That’s its job.

Of course, that doesn’t settle, or even bear on, whether using the word in class (for either professor or student) is appropriate or inappropriate. How much do you want to shock others in the room? To what extent do you want churchgoers in the class complaining to the dean or to their parents? Would you take your clothes off and show the class the festering boil on your bottom just to provoke class discussion about the body?

You decide. My job as a descriptive linguist is simply to describe accurately what role the word in question will be playing in the discourse if you decide to use it. Advice on whether to use it or not would be advice about what sort of person to be. For a man who wants that sort of advice, I’d say (in the immortal line from On the Waterfront), “He don’t need a doctor; he needs a priest.”

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