On Four Letter Words

I adore words. I delight in trying out unfamiliar ones and in learning how to use them well. This is not without difficulty, though, and I have vivid memories of being laughed at for mispronouncing “poltergeist” upon first reading Harry Potter. It was hardly my fault, though! I’d only ever read the word!

Badly pronounced words do not trouble me.
Badly used words, however, trouble me immensely.

Badly pronounced words do not trouble me, for it indicates that the speaker is more used to reading and writing than talking. Badly used words, however, trouble me immensely. Beyond mere questions of grammar (is this word being used properly?), there are considerations of morality (is this word being used appropriately?). Beyond these, too, there are serious concerns about the subtle influence of our language on our lives.

Words are constantly evolving. Google the etymology of any word and you will see the subtle shift of its meanings over time, the waxing and waning of its colloquial use, the narrowing or broadening of its connotations. As a deep lover of words, I am fascinated by the way in which words live, adapting and changing organically.

In the postmodern era, this evolution has been appropriated and accelerated. It is as if we have all at once become aware of the impact of words on our concepts of identity, society, and reality. In a post-truth culture, we also seem able to use words wherever and however we wish…so long as it does not encroach on someone else’s conflicting ‘truth.’ I am not now writing to counter the impact of postmodernism, social justice, and critical theory on linguistic movements, but no doubt this would make an illuminating—and quickly ‘cancelled’—thesis. Instead, I want to address one word in particular. The core meaning of this consonant little term has not really changed, but the word itself has become so pervasive and multiplicitous in its usages that it is shockingly no-longer-shocking.

In high school, my AP Literature class read Beloved by Toni Morrison. Before we could proceed, our parents were notified that this book contained a word which most of us heard every day but posed a liability in literature. This seemed ironic; in Beloved, this word was used to accurately and acutely describe evil and suffering. Heard in the school hallways, it was out of place, ridiculous, and unnecessary; in this powerful work of literature, it was potentially vital. It may be that no other word would have communicated the sheer dehumanisation of slavery, assault, and bestiality.

By now, you’ve likely guessed the word in question. You likely have already encountered it today online, in writing, or in your own mind. Now, there may be a time and place to pen profanities, for truthful writing must account for human depravity as well as dignity; however, now is no such time. I found recently that one of my favourite authors was much of the same mind in this matter:

“I don’t think there are meaningless swearwords; they wouldn’t work if they were meaningless…The word has huge overtones of dominance, of abuse, of contempt, of hatred.”

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin took to blogging late in life, and her posts have now been compiled in print in No Time to Spare. One particular section surprised me. In it, she discusses the prevalence of certain four-letter words in newer novels, writing that she wished that authors would use them more sparingly or, at the very least, less carelessly. It appears that these words do not lose their meaning with overuse, but instead desensitise their users.

It is tragically ironic that contemporary culture champions the #MeToo movement, yet continues to make constant and casual use of a word which carries connotations of sexual violence.

It is tragically ironic that contemporary culture champions the #MeToo movement and is increasingly concerned with matters of consent and assault, yet continues to make constant and casual use of a word which carries connotations of sexual violence. The frequency with which we encounter this word does not and cannot really separate it from its core meaning; in fact, I worry that speakers and writers are unintentionally perpetuating casual views of sex and aggression by rendering this word an adjective and adverb as well as an awful action. To use a violent, vulgar word as a casual filler and descriptor likely has had a more serious, damaging influence our our minds, hearts, and actions than we realised.

Recall the words of James:

For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

James 3:1-12, ESV

As demonstrated here and in the full chapter, the man who can guard his tongue is also capable of bodily self-control. This chapter is primarily warning against false teaching and malicious speech, but I think it extends to include any words that are used insensitively or thoughtlessly. Thus, my concern regarding profanity goes beyond puritanical prohibition. Rather, it is essential to recognise that our curses and praises both reveal and reform our entire person. Put simply, it isn’t just that certain words are forbidden, but that they are formative. We cannot expect to truly counter violence, hatred, and broken relationships until we learn first to harness our tongues—and pens—and to speak with intentionality, integrity, and intelligence.

It isn’t just that certain words are forbidden, but that they are formative; we cannot expect to counter violence, hatred, and broken relationships until we learn first to harness our tongues and to speak with intentionality, integrity, and intelligence.

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