I’ve written before, about how George Carlin largely influenced how I look at the English language, and more specifically at words. Despite growing up in a society that continued to reinforce the fact that some words were better than others—or that some were bad— I didn’t believe it. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the ‘bad’ words, as Carlin had described them.
After a while, the ‘N-word’ became something that I had to think about. It had been present in my life as long as I can remember, little kids having heard it and repeating it, rap music, distant family members, but at a certain age I had to think more about it. It is arguably the closest thing to a ‘bad’ word that there is. It had seemed context based for me for a long time, meaning that I thought if I didn’t intend harm that it was ok. It felt like ‘being able to say it’ was a badge of honor. Later I came to realize that the desire to have the right to use the word was immaturity, it was that look a small child gives you right before doing something they know is naughty, but in a teenager. The ‘N-word’ became the first word that was on my personal ‘bad words list.’ It was clear that for me to use it was bad, pretty much regardless of context.
The ‘N-word’ has been a recognized bad word for a long time, longer than I’ve been alive, and so that wasn’t a cultural shift, but a personal one. In my life however, around the time I was becoming an adult—at least in the eyes of the law—another word began to shift in its meaning. The word marriage, when I was a kid had been defined or at least understood as “the legally or formally recognized union of a man and woman,” but then Vermont and Massachusetts began legalizing ‘gay marriage.’ I didn’t get too hung up on the original definition but certainly others did.
After ‘gay marriage’ and then ‘marriage equality’ gained a significant amount of traction, I began finding myself engaging in a lot more conversations about the definition of marriage. As the discussions began, I found myself having to give a significant amount of thought to the definition, but the real epiphany came to me when I was getting married.
When you get married, you’ll find out that everyone has an opinion on how you need to do it, for some it’s a matter of doing it in a church, for others the father of the bride has to ‘give her away.’ As more and more people told me what the traditions were, I began to think about why those traditions were in place, the father ‘gives’ the bride away, because it used to be a business transaction, or a political partnership. At this point, as I was thinking about this, my go to argument when Sarah and I didn’t want to follow some tradition was ‘well her father didn’t give me a parcel of land or any sheep.’ The institution of marriage—even if confined to one man and one woman—had changed its definition from its origin, and in a significant way. So why was changing marriage from one man and one woman to two men, or two women any different? This thought process began to fill in the gaps of the conclusion that my brain had jumped to years earlier.
A class that I took, talked about how language is ever evolving. If the best spoken person of today, were to speak with the Founding Fathers, for example, they may sound uneducated. Or if we didn’t have the communication technology that we currently have, modern day British English, and American English would be much less compatible. This idea of language constantly evolving is one of those things that we all participate in, but seem to not like when someone else does—like when every generation claims the next one is the worst. Change is scary and we all like to think our way is the right way, we like to think that our definitions and our words are the right ones.
Someone, hundreds of years ago, decided that the word fuck was bad, or lower class, or any number of other negative designations, and it bubbled through our society. Ask someone why they don’t like the word fuck, and they probably can’t give an articulate answer, it will probably be along the lines of ‘because it’s a bad word.’ They won’t understand why, just that it always has been. It’s not a real reason, but we don’t always have a reason for our feelings.
I’m thirty two years old, and in the last year or two, I have changed my opinion on the ‘bad’ words that George Carlin argued for. I still think that there is nothing wrong with those words, but I am starting to understand that other people’s opinions count when it comes to them. I try to not use those words in front of people who do not agree with them. I’ve done a good job with certain people, I don’t think my father heard me say the word fuck until last week when he walked in as I was changing Logan’s diaper and he kept wrestling out of my grasp and crawling away naked—one of the most appropriate times to use the word.
Once Logan begins to talk, I will have no problem with him saying those words, and I don’t want him growing up thinking they’re bad, but I want to raise him to know that other people not liking them does matter.