Related to the work we’ve done in class about grammar and power, slang terms, and words that have dangerous power, I came across this brief essay about profanity written by a newspaper columnist. After she extolls the scientifically proven virtues of swearing (including research that shows that cursing can help us manage pain), she closes by telling us what she teaches her children about “bad” words:
There are no bad words, I tell them. There are only sensitive and less sensitive audiences. Know your audience. Or be ready to get kicked in the crass.
I have often talked with my own children in similar terms, only because I don’t want them to be afraid of any words or think that the words themselves have some inherent power. As we discussed in class, these “dangerous” words in our language are labeled as such because some people find them to be offensive and/or hurtful. And they’re entitled to feel that way, and we’re obligated (as speakers or writers) to be sensitive to those feelings. But to ascribe some inherent power (or “badness”) to a word is misguided, and can prevent us from considering language in an objective way that helps us understand how and why it exercises such power in the world around us.
Teenagers love to talk about generational differences in language, how slang words mark a younger generation or how the older generation often criticizes the use of words such as “like,” for instance. Discussions about profanity are also interesting to students and a great way to initiate a dialogue about where power comes from in language. The more we can stress to our students the important role that audience plays in this, the more critical and thoughtful students will be as writers and communicators.