Vocabulary, Profanity, and Snobbery

| Monday, January 21, 2013
Today's Tune: Fuck You

First: you can win a signed copy of The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater just by commenting on this post over here. WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR.

There's this opinion I see floating out in the world fairly often, and it's this: certain types of vocabulary, particularly those considered "slang," "urban," or "profane," are lesser words and phrases typically only used by those who aren't intelligent or educated enough to use other terminology. In simpler terms: people who swear and use slang are inferior in intelligence and communication skills.

Whenever I hear this argument, my immediate response tends to be: FUCK. THAT. NOISE.

Before I start getting my rant on, I'd just like to clarify that I have no problem with people who choose not to swear for personal reasons. That's fine. My issue lies with the superior attitude that comes with the insistence that swearing or slang usage is something that marks a person as unintelligent or unworthy of acknowledgement. The sentiment is, frankly, bullshit.

I imagine anyone who's been around me for very long is well aware that I am fully capable of explaining complex positions without the use of slang or profanity. Basically, I'm no dummy. This is the case for people that aren't me, as well. So why is it that when one of us decides to use Internet slang or curse words, we're met with this attitude?

Because it's snobbery and tone-policing, that's why. If a communication doesn't meet someone's "standards" of appropriate discourse, then they are free to discount it or lament the decline of general public intelligence (of which they are exempt, of course). It's another way for people to try and control the language and voice of people they feel don't deserve to be heard.

This doesn't just apply to profanity. I recently saw a comic strip that was using "great literature" to illustrate how "lame" Internet slang is. Now, this is a strip that I usually like, so I was kind of put out to see this, because HELLO, INAPPROPRIATE COMPARISON. I naturally noted that the "great literature" is all stuff by white dudes from work released 50-500 years ago. Next, these come from drastically different mediums (the Internet versus poetry, stage plays, and novels very different from modern-day style). And, of course, it's disparaging the use of "Internet slang" as something of lesser notice and intelligence than these "great" literary masterworks.

Holding casual, conversational dialogue to the standards of classic literature is to say a certain structure is "real" communication, while the other isn't. This very easily blends into arguments such as, "You're swearing too much; clearly you're too angry to discuss this rationally." Or, "You made a typo and misused a word. This renders your argument invalid and me the victor."

Here's the thing about swearing: it exists for a reason. Swearing is actually tied to specific psychological reactions in the brain, and even if you don't use actual curse words, it's likely that you have similar fallbacks that your brain uses the same way. To decry it as something linked to a person's level of vocabulary or intelligence is not only incorrect, but a method of trying to control the expression of others so you can more easily write them off and feel superior.

I'm not even touching on certain racist and classist elements that exist under the surface of these claims, since I don't feel entirely qualified to talk about them. But here is a link you may find informative. Here is another one

There is no standard of communication to express complex or abstract ideas. Yes, there are standards of communication in professional writing that function to make a piece of writing easily recognizable to the reader. However, language evolves and changes. We do not expect our modern-day authors to write in iambic pentameter. It's kind of fallen out of fashion as an expected literary form. The digital era has changed the way we communicate ideas. This is not a bad thing.

IN SUMMARY: there are a lot of fucking reasons why someone may choose to express themselves with profanity. Real, concrete, scientific reasons ranging from stimulating specific parts of the brain to intentionally using a word that elicits a specific response in readers. There are situations in which highly academic discourse detracts from a conversation rather than adds to it. And, actually, academia can be restrictive and shitty in its own right.

So how about we allow people to express themselves in the ways in which they are most comfortable and we consider the value of that communication without writing off the entire thing because they said something "gave them all the feels," hm?



{ Mrs. Silverstein } at: January 21, 2013 at 7:04 AM said...

This is something I struggle with as a (white, upper-middle-class) teacher of students who are mostly not those things. On the one hand, I completely agree with you that the way a person expresses an idea and the quality of that idea can be two totally separate things. And the articles you linked to are fantastic; even my students who were speakers of AAVE didn't know that it had a name (other than "wrong" or "street" or whatever their earlier teachers had told them to quit sounding like). My issue always came with what to do as an English teacher. See, in order to get high scores on the statewide exam, my students needed to be able to use Standard Written English. And, like it or not, they also need to be able to speak it (and to do so without cussing) in order to have the best odds of finding jobs, succeeding in college, being treated fairly by shopkeepers and police and even other teachers...the list goes on. So while I didn't want to come roaring in asserting that they should speak more like me, I also wanted to give them the best chance at all kinds of success. I tried to do that by being explicit about when SE was important, as well as by staying away from words like "wrong" or "correct" when talking about usage, I'm sure there were times when I slipped, and I'm sure there were times when I privileged SE too much. But the way a person speaks and writes is such a huge factor in how they are perceived, and SE is still given so much privilege, that it felt like going all the way to the side of "Express yourself however you like" would have been irresponsible. (Also: nothing makes me chuck a book out the window faster than a character speaking in what the author thinks AAVE sounds like when s/he clearly hasn't spent time around any actual speaker. That business gets OFFENSIVE...)

{ S.E. Sinkhorn } at: January 21, 2013 at 7:56 AM said...

Oh, I can definitely imagine this gets VERY complicated from the standpoint of a K-12 educator who's charged with giving their students their best chance of success in life, especially given school systems that favor absurd standardized test scores in order to distinguish "successful" schools from "unsuccessful" without closer examination. I was mostly speaking from an overall culture standpoint -- the way society is framed that gives that trickle-down effect that dictates the "right" way of speaking is the way a certain sort of upper-middle-class white man talks. It's certainly a difficult position to be in, because we can't very well give privileged society the finger and ignore its hold. I suppose my goal is to begin with the people who are open to the idea of considering that sneergliding away from certain speech patterns or word choices is crappy and privileged.

In other words, we have to start somewhere ;)

{ phirework } at: January 21, 2013 at 8:59 AM said...

Next time you hear someone being a jerk about not using ~*Proper English*~ you could tear into them using Shakespearean insults...

{ Old Kitty } at: January 21, 2013 at 9:23 AM said...

My beef is with thinking writing in txt lingo is acceptable for everyday use! LOL!
Take care

{ Andrew Leon } at: January 21, 2013 at 10:50 AM said...

Wait! We're not supposed to right in iambic pentameter anymore! Damn! I have to start my new WiP over from the beginning!

Speaking of communication, I saw a list recently of the top 10 living crankiest authors. It was interesting, because about 7 of these were on the list because of their attitudes about e-books and how those things aren't really books and what we should all go do with them.
People just like to get all uppity about shhtuff.

{ fairyhedgehog } at: January 21, 2013 at 11:49 AM said...

For some reason I hate text speak but I realise that is a personal idiosyncrasy and some people love it. I'm mostly a desriptivist and I love LOLspeak, slang, and high-falutin' language indescriminately.

As for "swear words" I feel like they all have their uses.

What I hate is name-calling: telling people they have a "potty mouth" when they use strong language.

So I think we're on the same page, here!

{ linda } at: January 21, 2013 at 7:44 PM said...

Ooh, interesting. My personal feelings about profanity has evolved over the past couple of years. I used to be one of those people who NEVER EVER EVER said a bad word and felt awkward and uncomfortable when people used swear words around me (though I wouldn't mention it or ask them to stop or anything -- I'd just wince to myself).

I don't hold myself to that standard any more and no longer feel awkward hearing/seeing/using profanity. I still don't use it a lot or enjoy seeing excessive use of swear words, but I've come to feel that there are some situations for which profanity is the most fitting and eloquent form of expression. :)

{ Whirlochre } at: January 24, 2013 at 7:46 AM said...

Swear words are like any other words — there to be used well or badly, to spill from mouths by force of habit or targeted guile.

The rule for swear words is therefore the same rule as for all words in writing: is this the right word for this sentence?

That's why Scooby Doo never swears and Begbie from Trainspotting never doesn't.

That said, I do like to afford myself the luxury of saying 'knob' more than I should. Knob, knob, knob. Ah — that's better.

{ rcmjivaro } at: January 27, 2014 at 6:35 PM said...

I have been saying this for years. One question. How, praytell, did you manage to maintain the give a fuck to attempt the eloquent handling of the subject that you have provided.

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