LANGUAGE WARNING! (THIS POST CONTAINS LANGUAGE, as all my posts do, but this one, well, it contains language that some might consider offensive. If you consider it offensive, feel free to curse me out in the comments.)
Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about the power of words, whether you realize that’s what people are truly talking about or not. Words ARE powerful. Newscasters are saying things like ‘racial slurs’ instead of saying the word nigger. I wrote an article once about ‘The N-Word: Who Should Say It?” Historians should be able to use the word, because it’s history and without using it, no one knows what it is. Should newscasters use the word? Well, that’s a tough one. It’s technically not included as a curse word, like fuck or shit would be, but to many (and I think I’m one of those), it’s more offensive than those words. Newscasters don’t say fuck or shit, even if they are quoting someone, they bleep that out, so should they be able to say nigger without bleeping it? This question has multiple answers depending on who you ask. Whoopi Goldberg, a black woman, says newscasters should say it if they are quoting and that saying “the N-word” makes it sound cute or funny, and it’s not. But then, on The View, the other black panelist said, paraphrasing here, that she doesn’t like it when a white person says it but it doesn’t bother her when a black person says it, and that includes using it in newscasts.
But in the end, it’s just a word. Letters that form sounds, and it only has as much meaning and power as people choose to give it. And isn’t that the problem? People GIVE the word power, by how it’s used or not used. There was a black man who once said that perhaps everyone should start using the word all the time, desensitize everyone to it, so that the word has no meaning anymore. While that’s an interesting idea, I and many others, including black people, usually lean toward the “Uhm, no” side on that debate.
But maybe there’s something to that. After all, when I was a kid, the television wouldn’t say hell, damn or bitch, and now, we get these words in the titles of shows even, not just being said in the show. Hell’s Kitchen is one of my favorite television reality shows to watch, and 20 years ago, the name would have never flown. There’s a show the other day I saw on the Roku when scanning through with the word Bitch in the title. Southpark did that hilarious show where they said shit and had counters on the screen on all four corners counting how many times they said the word throughout the episode. I laughed so hard through that one. But we’ve become acclimated to the expletive some. People curse more now than they used to and the degree of severity of cursing has changed.
But then, who assigns the degree of severity? I mean, hell and damn are okay, but shit and fuck are ‘bad words’. Cunt – while not technically even considered an expletive, is considered more offensive by most women than the word fuck is, and yet… and yet… it’s used all the time, now isn’t it? Ass is okay but asshole is bleeped – I’ve never understood that one. In fact, on some shows, they bleep the ‘hole’ part of the word so that the person only says ‘ass’. It’s not a mistake – they did that on purpose. What, when did ‘hole’ become a curse word?
And word censors on the internet are hilarious. I can’t pet my pussycat. My cocker spaniel becomes an “er spaniel”–on a DOG FORUM I went to, believe it or not.
I probably won’t tell this story correctly or am not remembering it exactly as it happened, but years ago, when my mother and father were getting a divorce, they both were sort of involved in these counseling seminars, Voyages of the Heart, I think they were called. While in those seminars, there was some talk about the power of curse words, how cussing can sort of be freeing and make a point. My father used to say, “When you smash your thumb with a hammer, saying, “Gosh, golly, gee whiz, that hurt!” just doesn’t always cut it.” He’s right. A well-timed, “shit” or “fuck” or “goddammit” does seem to make the point a bit stronger, doesn’t it? My mother was a bit of a prude. She never cussed until after these seminars. The first time I heard her say the word shit, it was so funny hearing it, I broke out laughing at a very inappropriate time. She said the lead counselor used to have a problem being able to say ‘fuck’ so she bought herself a nightshirt with the word on it on her chest is big bold letters and wore it until she could say it.
I remember when Saturday Night Live had Andrew Dice Clay on, and they had news stations reporting that they were going to broadcast on a seven-second delay to avoid Clay causing them any fines for using inappropriate words. It was like a big, huge, major deal at the time (this must have been the late 80s, early 90s).
All this fuss over words. Just words.
But words have power. They have meaning.
Saying, “I love you” can strike fear or bring comfort. Powerful phrase, but when said too frequently, used too easily, it loses its impact.
“We’re over,” has the power to end a relationship.
“He’s dead,” has the power to end a life inside of another person.
Words convey meaning, and they have impact, based on how we use them. Nobody knows or should know this more than a writer. We writers should be acutely and keenly aware of the impact that words have, the value people place on them, and we should use those words properly.
Gratuitous use of expletives will turn what could have been a hard-edged, hard-hitting scene into a joke. But properly well-placed expletives can convey the darkness, the edginess of a character or a scene. Racial slurs should be used in writing, when the issue is about race, because that’s realistic. To use anything less than authentic slurs would surely tip the reader off that this is fiction, not reality – and the whole point of being a fiction write is to make people not so much forget reality, but rather, to have them immerse themselves for a moment in YOUR reality, the one you created, in your book.
And it’s not just fiction writers who need to realize how powerful words are. Choosing the right words can make all the difference.
For example, my doctor called today and gave some news to Lynn, and because of the way he worded it, I thought he meant something he actually didn’t mean. Later, when Lynn clarified what I had understood versus what he’d actually meant, it was a relief to see that I had taken his words wrong. Who made the mistake here, me for reading the words wrong or the doctor for not sharing them properly so they could be understood? In the end, does it really matter, when I spent the morning in tears and the doctor was flustered and concerned and upset that I felt that way when it wasn’t what he meant? But if he had taken the time to choose his words carefully, then perhaps the misunderstanding would not have happened.
But at least with my doctor, I had a chance to call and talk to him and clarify the situation.
As a writer, you won’t have that with your readers. You won’t get to sit down and have a one-on-one with every one of them. So it’s your job to be sure you’ve picked the right words to convey your message, the most powerful words, the perfect words, strung together, to make meaning of your story.
And if you’re not a writer, you should still choose your words carefully. Every single day, people fight over misunderstandings that could have been prevented if someone had just stopped a moment to choose their words more carefully.
Words are powerful. They carry meaning with them when spoken, how they are spoken, and who is speaking them. They carry meaning when written, and unlike when spoken, the written word cannot be changed, altered or taken back–it stays there, in black and white, rendering it’s meaning for all to see clearly.
Choose carefully. Write thoughtfully. Respect the power of words.
Love and stuff,
PS: Just in case you don’t click on the link above about the N-Word, which is actually a review of the book: THE N-WORD: WHO SHOULD SAY IT, WHO SHOULDN’T, AND WHY, then you’ll miss the last line of it that says: “As for the use of the word in rap music, in an article posted on Truthdigg, Asim is quoted as writing, “Rappers will be rappers, and the rest of us know better.”