Soft Language

Browsing through Arts and Letters Daily, I found this article: Banished Words, Is slang the natural evolution of language, or just a ginormous trickeration of all that is sensible? 

The ALD article reminded me of this routine by the late George Carlin,  an American stand-up comedian, social critic, satirist, actor and writer/author. He was provocatively outspoken, deliberately vulgar, and usually as thought-provoking as amusing. He did not condescend to his audience, and in interviews was articulate and well-informed.  Some called him the thinker’s comedian.

A euphemism is a generally harmless word, name, or phrase that replaces an offensive or suggestive one. Some euphemisms intend to amuse, while others intend to give positive appearances to negative events or even mislead entirely. Euphemisms are used for dissimulation, to refer to taboo topics (such as disability, sex, or death) in a polite way, and to mask profanity. The opposite of euphemism roughly equates to dysphemism.

Euphemisms are used in a variety of situations for numerous reasons. A person who wishes to be vague might conceal words that are too precise in the social context. For example an acquaintance might knock on a bedroom door and ask the occupant, “Are you decent?” Such a question is a euphemism for “Is your body clothed to the extent that you will feel comfortable if I enter and see you?” Euphemistic language is also used to replace crude or inappropriate language, such as saying, “I am indisposed” to replace specifics such as, “I am sitting on the toilet defecating.” And if profanity is undesirable, a person might simply forgo the offensive word, such as saying, “Kiss my you-know-what!” instead of the more vulgar, “Kiss my ass.” (Wikipedia)

I do not agree with the statement in Wikipedia that euphemisms are generally harmless. Carlin makes many good points. Political correctness can be taken too far, and social niceties are often phony. In my opinion everyone, including the press and political candidates should speak clearly and plainly, should say what they mean and mean what they say.

Our language does need work, though. Yesterday on my way into a store at the mall, I heard a young man use the “f word” seven times in a few sentences. I was not being nosy… he was almost shouting at the young woman with him. It was really “cringe-worthy”. (Ouch)

Last week I was so annoyed at the incompetence and arrogance of a certain individual that I really needed to use an appropriately insulting pejorative term. I was speechless. All the really powerful “bad words” have been cheapened by overuse in everyday contexts. They have lost their ability to express strong emotion, their ability to shock and awe. Using them no longer registers intense emotion… they merely identify the speaker as an ignoramus with poor vocabulary skills. I was reduced to saying that I was very angry and disappointed!

Soft language!

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3 Responses to Soft Language

  1. Sufiya says:

    I LOVE George Carlin; His routine “a place for my stuff” is a classic! And yes, he was not really a ‘comedian”; I was always amazed at how profound he could get at times!
    And yes, the ubiquity of foul language in today’s society is quite horrifying; I have heard the neighbour’s kids (as in “pre-teens”) playing in their back yard and freely screaming out words that would have (and did, in fact) earn me the corner of a bar of Palmolive in the mouth! And I say this as someone who is well versed in the art of “language” AND who also has vocabulary skills! i would however disagree that the use of bad words does not necessarily have to mark someone as lacking in vocabulary skills; once can use those self-same skills to enhance one’s “billingsgate” with a touch of originality: “Offspring of a syphilitic streetwalker and a night-demon” is one of my favourites, but unfortunately it’s hard to get it out in the heat of the moment!

  2. motleydragon says:

    ” I would however disagree that the use of bad words does not necessarily have to mark someone as lacking in vocabulary skills”… but there are so few words in common use in this “vocabulary set”, and unnecessary repetition has rendered them meaningless.

    On the other hand, really innovative insults are a lost art… even more so because they go right over the heads of those who need to understand them. There is no point in insulting someone who doesn’t understand the insult, although it may be prudent to do so. Perhaps we could initiate a revival.

    My favourite Carlin routines have to do with religion… he really knows how to zero in on the BS (another overworked term) and expose the absurdities. His rewrite of the Ten Commandments is always good for a laugh.

    Good to hear from you again!

  3. Pingback: Insult Me | Invest Me in My Motley

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