By the inclusion of the occasional “bad” word in my novels, I have willfully hamstrung my potential sales in the education market. Schools are very sensitive to parental/community overreaction to their children coming across curse words in school-assigned texts; therefore, they are reluctant to purchase books that make use of them. This is true even when the words are accurately reflective of reality. Not long ago, a local school district came under fire for teaching Walter Dean Meyer’s novel FALLEN ANGELS, a modern classic set “in country” during the Vietnam War, because the mostly-teenaged soldiers occasionally use the “F-word.” I somehow doubt those “grunts” said “Darn!” or “Fudge!” or “Poop!” very often. And when they said “Shoot,” it was in an entirely different context.
Father Flanagan, the priest who founded the Boys Town orphanage, is famous for saying, “There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.” I’m not sure that I totally agree with Fr. Flanagan. It seems to me that some people are simply born evil, but the relationship between nature vs. nurture in personality development has nothing to do with this article. Instead, I’m going to share how I have long used Flanagan’s motto to make the similarly-contentious point that there is no such thing as a bad WORD; only words used in inappropriate environments and due to inappropriate training/example/thinking.
To begin with, I’ve never been a Grammar Nazi who corrects every double negative, incorrect use of “who” or “whom,” or the confusion between “can” and “may” or “I” and “me.” In fact, I find such people pedantic and annoying. Sure, I have a few pet peeves, but for the most part, I try not to nag. I especially believe that there is far more room for loose grammar and blue language in the spoken word than in the written one. But in either case, words are intended to facilitate communication, and as long as a speaker’s words are understood, I believe she is communicating appropriately.
“But what about curse words?” Some would ask. I believe that even curse words are appropriate in the correct environment and context. For example, despite a fairly-extensive vocabulary, I swear like a sailor when I’m with my buddies, but I don’t believe I have ever used a swear word in my mother’s company or in front of children. Another example of the contextual appropriateness of curse words occurs in movies that have been edited for television. In these the curse words have often been dubbed so that a word like “shit” becomes a garbled “shoot.” The replacement word typically doesn’t fit the situation or the character and completely ruins the scene by rendering it laughable. Even the “F-bomb” is acceptable in the proper environment. I’m thinking of that Maroon 5 song “Payphone.” In the unedited version, in utter disgust, Adam Levine sings, “One more fucking love song, I’ll be sick,” and it has punch. On the radio-friendly version, he sings, “One more stupid love song, I’ll be sick,” and it just lacks something. As an extreme example, dirty talk between the sheets would become clinical, un-sexy, and pathetic without the use of so-called curse words (I’ll let you imagine a few lines for yourself.).
The most extreme use of words that are generally deemed inappropriate for public consumption occurs when utilizing those terms that are charged with venomous disrespect for a person’s race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. I would argue, however, that even these – more so for the writer than the speaker – can be used appropriately. The best example, of course, being Mark Twain’s HUCKLEBERRY FINN. I’ve tried to read censored versions in which the n-word (I can’t even type it; I find it so distasteful.) has been changed to “slave.” The conversion ruins the story and lessens Twain’s intended satire regarding the wrongheadedness of racism. And although I do not like the “C-word,” I watched a character in HBO’s THE LEFTOVERS use it in reference to a female rival, and it stung in a way that the “B-word” never could. As a child, I was sometimes chided for using the word “hate.” Adults would say, “Hate is a strong word.” I always thought, “Yeah, that’s why I use it.”
In my classroom, I often compare the words at a writer’s or speaker’s disposal to a handyman’s tools. Although it would be inappropriate and less effective to hammer a nail with a wrench, we wouldn’t label the wrench itself as a “bad” tool. It would simply be being used in an improper context. So don’t let the Grammar Nazis and the language prudes get to you. In the words of John Mayer, “Say What You Need to Say.”