Colorful Language

I love slang, and I love cussin’.

But why, you might ask? Why love that which is rude, crude, and lewd?

I hear people complain a lot these days that ‘four-letter’ words and slang are taking over our language. Since the social revolutions of the 20th century, language has become much more casual, more free and easy, less mannered. By the latter, I’m not talking about manners as they relate to courtesy. I’m talking about rules of conversational etiquette that are often arbitrary. Most of these conventions are useful, as they help organize language and assign definitions so that people can readily make themselves understood to one another. But many other conventions seem contrived, imposed by a social elite to lend a patrician air of refinement to the speaker. Sometimes, it works to their advantage: after all, who isn’t impressed when hearing public intellectual Bertrand Russell wax eloquent on current events, the value of philosophy, and the horror of war in his rather delightful, oh-so-aristocratic style? But while this kind of etiquette can lend a certain pleasing elegance to language, it can give it a stiff, stilted, artificial, and to our modern ears, oddly quaint quality. And too much insistence on ‘correctness’ in speech can render a language dead, in the sense that it’s frozen in time, unable to evolve to express new ideas and ever more shades of meaning.

Those who are especially offended by the increasing use of slang and cuss words consider it a sign that we’re becoming lazier, ruder, more selfish, more aggressive, less respectful of one another. These ‘bad’ words, they complain, are proliferating ever more on the internet, in popular music, on TV, and in movies, infiltrating our kids’ vocabulary at an ever younger age, and worst of all, dumbing down our language.

I agree with these objections to a certain extent. People can be rude, selfish, aggressive, disrespectful, and hateful, and express these attitudes through the use of slang and cuss words. But they can and do express all of these with formal, more ‘acceptable’ language as well. Euphemisms, double-speak, and coded language are all classic examples of ways in which we insult, denigrate, and undermine one another while avoiding the use of lowbrow or taboo terms.

Yet I would argue that many types of ‘polite’ speech, such as euphemisms, double-speak, and coded language, can be much more offensive and harmful because they’re less direct and therefore, less honest. The speaker who chooses these indirect methods of expressing offensive ideas are often attempting to evade responsibility for them, giving themselves an ‘out’ they don’t deserve. These sorts of ‘weasel words’, easy to recognize with the uncanny ability most people have at recognizing and understanding innuendo, are so conveniently slippery that they’re a common tool of the self-righteous jerk, the racist, the sexist, and the elitist. The speaker who uses what are generally considered overtly offensive terms, on the other hand, render themselves accountable for what they say by expressing what they think in a way that’s readily understood and open to critique.

So it’s not slang or cussing that should give true offense in these cases, it’s the intent of the speaker and the content of the speech.

I also grant that people can be lazy and dumb down their language with slang and cuss words because they haven’t bothered to educate themselves, because they want to avoid saying anything challenging or of substance, and because they want to pander to the listener. But like the aforementioned forms of ‘polite’ offensive speech, this is true of other forms of speech as well. ‘Folksy’-speak (Sarah Palin is a famous example, and sadly, she has influenced too many of our politicians to pander ever more to the ‘folks’ in that way); psychobabble; obscurantist academic language; politically-correct speech; scrupulously ‘polite’ speech, and so on, can all be to obscure the fact that the speaker has little of substance they’re willing or able to say.

But those who pick on slang and cuss words generally are just plain wrong: they don’t always dumb down language. In fact, they often have rich and nuanced shades of meaning that polite language lacks, and can lend force, humor, and nuance to language. George Carlin’s immortal ‘Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television’ comedy routine is not only incredibly funny, it highlights the arbitrariness of so many of our language prohibitions, and how taboo words so often convey meaning that polite language can’t.

That’s why we have positive terms to refer to such language: strong, explicit, and colorful. And these terms point to the reasons why I love them.

As a fan of slang and cuss words when used right (no, you pedant, not ‘rightly’), I give the metaphorical finger right along with Carlin when I hear people complain about ‘bad’ language without bothering to understand and address the content behind the words. I suspect that most people who single out strong, explicit, and colorful language for criticism are mostly unfamiliar with the terms used, only enough to identify them as taboo. They assume that because these terms are sometimes used out of simple ignorance, crudeness, anger, or cheap desire to offend, they’re always used these ways. It seems, then, that the complaints often result form a simple lack of understanding. As restless and rebellious youth so often say of their parents, whose ability to understand is subject to the often self-imposed limits of their own experience, they just don’t get it.

Advocates for the exclusive use of polite language in public discourse usually claim that everything can be expressed in those terms, so long as a person possesses an excellent vocabulary. I’m here to tell you that just ain’t so. (My tiny little homage to Mark Twain, among the great innovators who introduced slang, colloquialisms, and other colorful language to great literature, as he illustrated better than anyone how the strictures of polite language so often hold us back.) Since slang and cuss words spring forth and evolve outside of the regulatory realm of polite language, the’re quick to fill in the gaps where there were no expressions for those exact ideas. For that reason, I submit, slang and cuss words are often much more nuanced and expressive than their much fewer yet more polite approximations.

This was brought home to me especially as I was reading (and commenting on) the the delightful Assholes: a Theory, and the many times I watched one of my favorite simultaneously very funny and informative documentariesF*ck. While you might immediately think ‘what a crude person that Amy is’, well, you’re partly right. Humor that is heavy on the use of strong, explicit, and colorful language tickles my funnybone like nothing else, but only if it’s simultaneously very witty. That’s because, for one thing, these terms reveal the wonderful nimbleness of language, when freed from its social constraints, to express just about anything our creative minds can come up with. It’s also because such terms generally concern themselves with the down-and-dirty (pun intended) realities of everyday human experience, for which laughter is the best cure, and humor the most accurate commentary. Strong, explicit, and colorful language chosen for nothing but its shock value, on the other hand, leaves me not only cold, but deeply annoyed, as it does nothing but justify the narrow stereotypes of the self-styled language police.
When it comes to strong colorful language, there’s a time and a place for everything. Formal language is great for the workplace, where strife needs to be avoided and the tasks readily made clear to everyone. Academic language can be great for academia, where highly technical, narrowly defined terms are needed to more efficiently discuss complex ideas. (Steven Pinker, however, very astutely points out that academic language has just as much of a tendency to become ever more obscure and confusing, even to other academics.) Likewise, jargon can be most suitable for professional conferences and talks, polite language most suitable for family and other gatherings of mixed age (since standards of politeness change over time), and so on.

But strong, explicit, and colorful language are also the best ways to express ourselves sometimes, and to avoid using them when they can best express what you’re trying to say is as foolish and self-defeating as refusing to use any tool that’s best for the job. Biting social commentary, humorous examinations of the human experience, expressions of just anger, getting to the bottom of how and why ‘douchebags’ and ‘assholes’ exemplify different ways of people failing to be decent… there are countless ways in which colorful language is the most excellent mode of expression. After all, ‘jerk’ or ‘louse’, while polite, are lame and far less nuanced terms to describe a person who behaves in such loathsome, or more accurately, ‘shitty’ ways as the douchebag and the asshole. From Chaucer to Shakespeare to Carlin, the discerning and true lover of language will recognize that polite terms often just don’t cut it when we need terms that will really help us get to the heart of the matter. Prissy fastidiousness or squeamishness about language can cause the listener to miss out on something interesting or important in what’s being said, and hamper the speaker in their efforts to express themselves as fully as they otherwise could.

So use language vigorously, creatively, and wittily, whatever form it takes, and it’s only proper to take offense at its use when the intent of the speaker, or the content of what they have to say, sucks.

– To Thomas Pyne, professor of philosophy at Sacramento State University, and his always fascinating and erudite lectures in Philosophy of Language, delightfully spiced with a little colorful language here and there

Sources and inspiration:
Anderson, Steve. F**k, A Documentary, 2005

Fry, Stephen. “Don’t Mind Your Language”

James, Aaron. Assholes, a Theory. First published Doubleday, NY 2012.
First Anchor Books Edition, Apr 2014., Steven. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. 2014, New York, NY: Penguin.

Book Review / Reflections On: Assholes, a Theory

The title might make you think it’s not a serious work, that it’s tongue-in-cheek, even a parody of a philosophy book.

But it’s really a very good, intelligently written, well-thought-out exploration of a sadly widespread phenomenon. And yes, it’s so satisfying to finally see that age-old question ‘Why are you being such an asshole?’ addressed and explained so thoroughly.

Author Aaron James is not being merely provocative in using the term ‘asshole’ to designate the particular kind of person he’s talking about. He uses this colloquialism because we really have no other word that’s so specific and so widely understood, to refer to a person who displays a certain attitude and systematically engages in certain types of bad behavior. Here’s James’ three-part definition: the asshole 1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically: 2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and 3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people (p 5).

When we say of someone: ‘what an asshole!’, or observe ‘that was such an asshole thing to do!’ pretty much everyone recognizes this just the sort of person or behavior we’re talking about. If we were to use a more formal or non-slang term instead, as in ‘what a bad person!’ or ‘that was a depraved thing to do!’, the full richness and specificity of meaning that the colloquial, richly nuanced term asshole possesses wouldn’t be fully expressed. Look at how many words it took James to define what we mean by ‘asshole’ (and I would say, not quite fully: none of the definition’s three parts describe the little shudder of outraged disgust we feel when we see assholes doing what they do.)

That’s why, like James and fellow philosopher Harry Frankfurt, whose 2005 paper ‘On Bullshit’ caused quite a stir, I disagree with linguistic purists and prudes who wholly reject the use of colloquialisms in serious or academic work (though I speak only for myself as to how far this should go ). Out of self-righteously willful obtuseness, I insist, these purists just don’t ‘get it’. Everyday spoken language is much more fluid and adaptable than formal language, because there’s no arbiter of proper usage ‘breathing down your neck’ other than your partner in conversation. In the virtual experimentation lab that is daily conversation, we search for words that express exactly what we mean as efficiently if possible, and if there’s no ready word available, we adapt one that already exists, or make one up on the spot. As long as the person you’re talking to right then understands you, ‘it’s all good’. Formal language, on the other hand, evolves much more slowly, and must adhere more rigidly to existing standards of usage. Only over long periods of time do newer terms, having entered into common usage, filter up through the levels of linguistic formalization, and become accepted by editors of dictionaries, publishing houses, and news media. Yet the formalization of language doesn’t always result in a more expressive, precise one. As you can see, I used several idioms and colloquialisms in this paragraph, in quotes, to express my thoughts, and if you haven’t ‘been living under a rock’ you probably understood exactly what I meant. You can also see that colloquialisms can not only be a more colorful or amusing way, but more efficient way, of expressing yourself. You can test this by trying to define the full meaning of these colloquialisms, with all their nuance, using a lesser number of terms in formal language. I’d ‘bet your ass’ you can’t!

(In one of my student papers written a few years ago, I explore the linguistic origins and evolution of colloquialisms in the light of Grice’s Cooperative Principle, Dumas and Lighter’s paper on slang, and Steven Anderson’s hilarious and thoughtful documentary F**k. )

But I digress. To return to James’ book: it has a lot going on. So much so that it lead me to think, for example, more about the nature of language itself, just from the parts where he discusses what ‘asshole’ means, the various subtypes of assholes, and compares and contrasts asshole to related terms bitch, schmuck, assclown, douchebag, dickhead, dick move, and so on. (He forgot one of my favorites, asshat, which refers to having one’s head up one’s own ass, thereby wearing it like a hat.) It’s a testament to the richness of ideas in this book that thinking it over, every time, engendered so many other interesting lines of thought. Exploring the concepts contained in the term ‘asshole’ raises important questions about respect for one’s self and others, of human dignity, of exploitation, of how you should act and not act in a cooperative society, what we can rightfully expect of others and why their failure to live up to this is so objectionable, and much more; in short, this term is thick with moral and political implications.

There’s one point on which I disagree: his suggestion that, while assholes are far more likely to be men (which I agree is the case), they are almost entirely a product of culture (chapter 4). While I agree there may be cultural factors that help instill asshole qualities in men, and that some cultures are more likely to instill these qualities than others, it seems that nature plays a larger role than James allows. I think it likely that testosterone, the hormone which we know increases the tendency to aggression, contributes a lot to the phenomenon of assholery. After all, the traits James ascribes to the asshole are aggressive in nature: systematically granting oneself special privileges over others, of feeling entitled to things whatever the circumstances, and rejecting or ignoring others’ just complaints. It’s not that all men are assholes, far from it. It’s just that the biological factor of hormonal makeup increases the likelihood that males will be more susceptible to asshole influences, or more likely to possess aggressive traits that readily fall into asshole patterns of thought and behavior, than women. To my mind, assholery is a product of combined nature and nurture: asshole seeds take root in ground made more fertile by testosterone.

One of my favorite sections of the book was on asshole capitalism. James is not claiming here that capitalism is necessarily an asshole system. What he’s claiming is that capitalism is essentially a cooperative system ripe for exploitation by assholes, which, in turn, puts it in ever-present danger of collapse, of being destroyed from within. That’s because capitalism is a system of exchange and of reward: people exchange goods and services cooperatively and fairly, which generates trust and more trade, and people reward those who devise and provide the best goods and services with admiration and customer loyalty. And assholery, systematically behaving as if one is entitled to things regardless of the actual value of their contributions to the world, threatens the stability of the cooperative environment necessary for capitalism.

Since assholes systematically regard themselves as the rightful recipients of the best of everything, out of a sense that they are entitled to it per se, assholes exploit other people’s willingness to be fair and to reward others. Asshole drivers feel that owning bimmers entitle them to run red lights and rev their motors inches from people in crosswalks; asshole CEOs and managers think nothing of the fact that their wealth is built on the backs of sweatshop laborers or from industries that generate mass pollution; asshole bankers think they should earn millions or billions a year because they ‘have the balls’ to gamble other people’s money in financial markets, even at the risk of bringing down entire economies (to be fair, they are often so obsessed with their own rewards they may have a hard time even conceiving of larger, potentially dire consequences, because that would mean seriously considering interests other than their own).

Capitalism can and does thrive when people act somewhat selfishly within a larger context of cooperativeness. But never to the extent that the system would hold up under too much lying, cheating, stealing, abuse and neglect of employees, etc. That’s because money, and markets, can’t operate without trust. If most people can be trusted and it’s just a relatively few bad apples gaming the system, well, human nature being what it is, that’s to be expected. But if entitled, self-obsessed, rapacious assholes proliferate beyond a certain proportion, all bets are off. James explains why the modern Russian oligarchic system is rightly considered a full asshole capitalist system and the Japanese system is very much not. Worryingly, and not the least bit to my surprise, James presents evidence for what I’ve already been convinced of: the United States brand of capitalism is edging far too close to Russia’s end of the spectrum, and much farther away from Japan’s. That’s because our modern American capitalist culture has become one of entitlement (as much as certain pundits like to use this word exclusively to refer to aid to the poor, not handouts and special privileges to the rich), in which far too many of use we feel justified in grabbing whatever we want because we somehow, innately, ‘deserve’ it, everyone else be damned.

In sum: this book is a very useful book, on how to understand the origins and nature of assholes; on how to recognize and deal with assholes in the media and in daily life (James’ theory helps explain why certain assholes in the media remain entrenched in their self-serving dishonesty); and as a cautionary tale of when societies allow and encourage assholery to run amok.

– This book review is dedicated to my father-in-law, a man given to succinctness. His fatherly wisdom, which so resonated with my husband he has retold it many times over the years: ‘Son, don’t be an asshole. The world has enough of them already’.

James, Aaron. Assholes, a Theory. First published Doubleday, NY 2012.
First Anchor Books Edition, Apr 2014.

Nicholson, Christie. ‘Testosterone Promotes Aggression Automatically’, Scientific American, June 9, 2012.

Thanks also to, which helped me make sure I had all my colloquialisms right, and avoided spelling bimmer ‘beamer’ like a moron