Monday, August 01, 2011

Blue language

Eastside Road, —
I'VE BEEN THINKING ABOUT language lately. No surprise there; language is one of my constant preoccupations. But specifically I've been thinking about what we used to call blue language, bad language, and its greatly increased presence in our daily life. It may not surprise you to learn that it's the Internet, and in particular Facebook, that's brought the subject so to mind.

Like many people my age, I suppose — I've long since entered my eighth decade — one of my main reasons for being on Facebook (and no, please don't look for me, the last thing I need is more Facebook “friends”) is to look in on the grandchildren. In the course of doing that, of course, I see comments posted by their friends. There are also the various nieces and nephews. And a number of them (not so much my direct descendants, I hasten to say) use language I find quite disturbing.

Now there's no question I'm a prig. I use the occasional four-letter word myself, but not that often. It still startles me to hear a woman swear. My mother never did, and the only time I've heard my wife use a four-letter word was years ago when, pushed to the limit, she suggested I go to hell. (When she pronounced the word it sounded like a place name; you could hear the capital “H”.)

I wonder as I read all these words what words these people use when they really need bad language. If they shut the car door on their thumb, for example: do they use the same word they use to describe a momentary annoyance?

I know: what most people intend these days, certainly what younger people intend, by the use of such language, is not what people of my generation or my parents' generation meant. Language changes, shifts. Declines, in fact, I would say, at least in this case. (I meant no pun there: sorry, grammarians.) But it's as hard for me to hear these words as inoffensive as it was, in remote antiquity, to hear soprano saxophones substitute for high trumpets in recordings of Brandenburg Concertos.

It's also true that people are more traveled these days, and different languages have different attitudes to this subject. The Dutch, for example, use what I think of as four-letter words to describe ordinary matters and events met in the course of daily life. They also use English four-letter words liberally, just as we Anglophones use a certain five-letter French word without really thinking about its literal meaning. I use le mot de Cambronne freely in English, but never in France, unless to say “break a leg” in French to a French performer about to go to work.

The problem with blue language is what happens in cases of linguistic asymmetry, when one party to a verbal exchange has a more liberal or a more literal relationship to vocabulary than does the other. If you call me by a name, or word, that's been internalized as A Very Very Terrible Thing to Say — “liar,” for example, was grounds for a thrashing in my childhood — it's very difficult for me to consider that you may be simply exaggerating, or in fact mis-using the word. “You lie” is used so frequently these days to mean “You're mistaken,” or even “I don't agree with your view.”

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