As a mother and a writer, I often find myself thinking about those elusive bad words. I can still remember my early days in grade school when someone would use the “F word” or the “D word” at recess. Now, I wasn’t always sure what those words were or why they were considered bad but they were all so horrible that we could only refer to them using the first letter of the word. They were the boogie man of the English language. As I got older I began to wonder more and more if a word could be bad. Is it possible that a series of harmless letters and sounds can combine to form something that is universally bad?
A little over a year ago my sister-in-law got a new dog. Because I like to shake things up with my nephew I asked, “How’s your new bitch doing?” My nephew was shocked by what he felt was an insult to his new dog, Precious. This is one of the problems with “bad words.” Precious is a bitch, a female dog. This is not an isolated incident for me. I love to use words that are considered bad in their proper context. Recently I called my husband over to see a variety of rooster that comes from Spain. I said, “Honey, this has got to be the biggest cock I’ve ever seen.” The truth is that many terms that are often called profanity still have other uses. It is also important to consider the speaker’s origin. If you were in London, the term “clever dick” would have an entirely different meaning than it would in New York.
From my perspective, most profanity is not offensive. Yet, I find myself highly offended by racial slurs or derogatory terms about sexual orientation. The new use of the term “retard,” is distasteful to me. All of this leaves me with much to consider when deciding how I should teach my children to handle the issue of the elusive bad words. Should I just tell them that there is no such thing as a bad word? Actually, I do tell them that. All words really are just a series of harmless letters. The meaning assigned to these groupings of letters can change throughout the years. So, I don’t think there is a ‘bad word’. What I try to teach my children is that all words have power. One of the powers that a word can have is to offend or hurt others. For that reason, we need to think about the words we use carefully. We need to make intelligent choices and strive to be respectful of others.
As a writer, I find myself in an entirely different position. Whether a word is offensive to me or others may not matter when I’m writing fiction. If I am writing about a character who likes shocking people with her sassy mouth, then why would I temper her language? I am sure I will write stories that involve characters that are offensive or even bigoted. In order to portray them accurately, I will use offensive language. Are the words bad? No, they are tools but like any tool they should be used with care. Whether writing or speaking our words should be chosen with care.