Let me tell a story to set the mood.
There I was, getting ready to go home after a wonderful, captivating ASL class when I overheard that a kid in the class needed a ride home and didn’t live too far away from me. So I offered him a ride home.
He asked to mess with the radio.
Normally, that permission is not granted. I listen to audiobooks, classical, or broadway tunes when I’m driving (the vast majority is audiobooks, though. vast), but I consented.
This kid immediately turns it to rap. And since Murphy’s Law is still loudly in effect, it came on to one of the most vulgar songs I ever heard. More F-bombs and other crude language than you can shake a stick at.
I asked him to turn it off, to which I got the “are you racist or just a pansy?” look. Knowing that I wasn’t a racist, he responded with this little gem:
“They’re just words.”
Then proceeded to try and lecture me on why they’re just words and I should accept them for the emotional expression that they are. “Sometimes you just need to swear to accurately state what you’re trying to say”
This coming from a culture that put words like “selfie” and “twerk” into the dictionary, I’m not sure I accept that argument.
Especially when I see so many people then idolizes words. Not in the bibliophile way, either. More like this:
This is from Terry Pratchett’s novel Going Postal. It’s one of the books that got me to fall in love with him as an author.
Throw in how many people have quotes on Facebook from books, movies, and songs, and it suddenly becomes a very intricate love affair with the effect words have on us.
Example 1: For the past six months, I had not seen Frozen, but knew about half the words to “Let It Go” by Idina Menzel. The song stuck with me despite my desire to not have that happen.
Example 2: vandalism actually increased in the months following Carrie Underwood’s song Before He Cheats.
Example 3: Try having a conversation with a person in a different language. Everyone else will begin wondering what you said, ask for a translation.
To exacerbate the problem, reply that “they’re just words” and continue the conversation in above mentioned foreign tongue.
Example 4: How many people have struggled to speak during a job interview/ performance evaluation? Suddenly there’s a lot of gaps because many people aren’t used to speaking in professionally, or even above the diatribe of vulgarity.
Now, I didn’t write this post to ban vulgar language. I’m not about to attempt to control another person. Usually those attempts make some a dominatrix, a supervillain, or a good-for-nothing abusive husband. None of which I am, though I am working on the technology.
What I’m trying to get at is that we’ve got this Janus approach when it comes to how we speak, and a lack of respect for someone who simply doesn’t want to hear vulgarity. I’ve yet to hear someone say “yeah, sure. I can tone it down” when I ask if they minded not speaking like that. I can ask people not to smoke in my car or not make out in the backseat, but watch out if you ask them to not speak like Li’l Wayne.
For all of my fellow wordsmiths out there, this is another difficult task that befalls us. Not only do we have the light switch choice of squeaky clean vocabulary versus gritty and crude, but even down to the selection of verbage during a paragraph comes under high scrutiny from readers, editors, spouses if we have one, and mostly from ourselves. That’s why we care about the chart with over two hundred synonyms for ‘said’ and why we long for a copy of the most recent Oxford English Dictionary with etymology. We carry a dictionary and thesaurus app on our devices while still pulling out the physical copy on our bookshelves. There’s more of an expectation.
There always will be that expectation, because true readers, that is to say writers, understand that saying “they’re just words” should have the same effect as saying “it’s just cancer”. Nations rise and fall not by bayonets and guns, but by words and ideas. Relationships succeed and fail largely by communication, the big term we use which means ‘lots of words over a period of time’. Jobs are obtained and ideas patented and put into motion by a single meeting where the right words were said.
They’re never just words.