January 25th, 2017
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” – from Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.
My experience and training in the field of communications tells me, over and over again, that words are creatures to be treated with caution. They can come back and bite you. Sometimes I sit for several minutes trying to find the right word – just right – or the right combination of words. At other times they will just roll off the tongue.
I know many good people who also love words – writers included, of course. In fact, Jamaicans are generally fond of playing with words, something which I find really cool and which I am no good at. I just try to find the “right” one. I remember I used the word “thug” in my blog once (describing ill-mannered men who were threatening people on a bus). I thought it was appropriate, but I was reprimanded for using the term because it had somewhat colonialist, classist, even racist connotations. Well, I have known of thugs of many colors and classes, but no matter. I accepted that it did not sound right to some people; and it shows how words can evolve and move from acceptable to politically incorrect, and so on.
Yes, we love words, but we have to be careful with them. Academics are particularly fond of their jargon, and expect other people to understand what they are talking about. But one thing that does throw a spanner in the works is when someone starts “cussing.”
I’m sure every single one of us has used “bad words.” I have been known to swear like a trooper myself, but only within the confines of my own home – and neither my husband nor our dogs are easily shocked. As a child, I remember overhearing my father swearing to himself over some work he had taken home; business wasn’t going well at the time. I was quite startled, as I had never heard him use any such words in front of us children.
He never did, and I am glad that he did not. I would have thought much less of him. For me, swearing brings a whole different tone to any conversation where it is inserted. Depending on how emotional the context is, it can be the equivalent of throwing a firecracker – or even a hand grenade – into a room. It inflames discussions. Uttering a curse word may, of course, be a simple expression of frustration, when other words don’t seem to work. Sometimes, though, it’s best to say nothing – or find different words. Because swear words introduce an element of aggression, even violence. The response to it is less predictable, depending on the topic and the context, of course. Once these inflammatory words are mixed with others, some people in the conversation may back away; especially if it’s a serious discussion. They can’t see past the “bad words.”
What concerns me the most, however, is the careless use of words – and in particular “bad” words – whether spoken or written, in the public arena. Self-control is something not easily learned (at least, not by me – I have always had quite a bad temper!) but it’s needed. If people constantly curse on social media that is a problem for me. If a man curses on the street, for no reason at all – and especially if he does so in the presence of children – I cringe. I very rarely share social media posts that include “bad words.” And I will not reply to someone who curses at me.
To me, it’s just a question of respectful communication. I must admit that when I first came to Jamaica, I found swear words rather odd – even quaint and laughable. They didn’t sound “that bad.” Now, decades later, I feel differently. It’s the recklessness I dislike – throwing words around isn’t usually my style, and I try really hard to be careful.
Words are part of our behavior, of who we are. I am constantly trying to discipline myself in this respect. How do I sound when I write? How do I sound when I talk to people?
There’s nothing wrong with “politeness,” in my view. It really is just a way of showing respect. Not hypocrisy. Just respect for others.