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.