This is an adult post. If you have a problem with language, stop reading.
When I was young my friend’s dad used to shout “Firetruck!” when ever he was angry. It was a creative way of getting away with saying the word, “Fuck” without actually saying it. Me and my friends used to laugh because we knew what he was saying, so we kind of felt like we were in on saying it, even though we hadn’t. It became kind of like an inside joke. We’d go out into the backyard and shout, “Firetruck!” giggling as though we had somehow gotten away with something.
As I got older I found out people in my church had many other creative ways of saying the word, without actually saying it. There was bullshift, farging icehole, shite, effing, crap, freakin’, and my friends favorite, fudge. And then I learned that the Comedian George Carlin actually had an entire skit on the “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television.” It’s classic stuff. Steven Pinker actually wrote a book on the topic.
The inside joke was learning “bad” words in other languages or cultures. “Shag” was a great one, or “bullocks.” When I went to Italy, the first thing my friend wanted to know was how do you say, “Fuck” in Italian. The answer was, “vaffanculo“.
I don’t want to excuse or imply that I am encouraging the rampant use of the word, “Fuck”. I would suggest that language, really any word, does convey meaning. Words can hurt deeply and cause significant pain in other people’s lives. But is the problem really in the word, or in our inability to handle the word?
The tension I see is that we have very little language for moments of deep frustration or anger. Sometimes, “Aaaargh” just doesn’t work. Even if we don’t use the word, “Fuck” we know what is going on when someone is trying to communicate when they say, “That’s fucked.” It can be overused though, as when someone says, “The fucker’s fucking fucked.”
As a father, I have had to come to terms with my own convictions about language and how to communicate those convictions to my children. I don’t really have a problem with language but I also don’t want my children running around saying, “Fuck” for affect. I do believe in restraint. The first time I said the word Fuck I was six and for some reason it felt good. I often wonder if the delight we sometimes feel in saying the word is secretly the fruit of not being hindered by other people’s morality and rules. This quickly grows old as we deal with the consequences of the word, but it happens nonetheless. My concern for my children is not that creatively learn how to avoid the word, but that they learn what language really means and its impact on people. I want my children to learn the responsibility that comes with their freedom.
We live in a culture, especially in the church, that simply doesn’t know how to handle the word. But these attempts to curtail the word actually have the side effect of hindering our own thoughts and language. We learn very quickly there are acceptable words and there are unacceptable words. The latter will, as Carlin used to say, “Infect your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war.” Yet words only have the power we give them. And when we give them power they become very powerful.
And I get that. But I would suggest that when we hide the word, or dance around it, we actually draw attention to it. When we say words like firetruck, friggin, and effing, or when we write F**K, instead of conveying a message, we have to translate the word to a meaning, and it means nothing different. Children aren’t hidden from it. If anything they’re wondering what it means.
The tension is deeper than that for me. When we pretend we’re NOT saying the word, we’re actually deceiving ourselves. Words are simply symbols in cultural context. In and of themselves they mean nothing until we assign a meaning. So when we say firetruck, we’re actually referencing the same meaning as the word fuck but we’re thinking we’re getting away with it. The problem is not in the word but in the fact that we’re now holding onto a lie, which to me is the real problem.
The best analogy I can think of is that words are like knives. In the hands of a skilled chef, knives can be a fascinating experience, revealing an art. When I take my kids to Benihana, they can’t wait to see that artistry. Knives when used by someone produce a relatively benign, but enjoyable experience. The same holds true for words. When used by someone they are relatively benign but enjoyable.
But if the chef just lost his wife and children to a horrific tragedy and decided to turn the knife on himself, it holds a radically different possibility. Knives, when used ON someone, can be deadly. Words are exactly the same. When used on someone they can be deadly. Because I don’t need to use the seven deadly words to kill someone. I can easily do it with the other 399,993.
I would suggest that our liberation from the problem of language comes not when we reject it or place morale boundaries around it as taboo fruit, but when we take responsibility for it.
My friend Angela Harms joined me in this mini subversive Synchroblog. Please visit her post: Rated R For Language.