In the beginning of civilization was The Word. It is almost impossible to imagine us without it. Word symbols gave mankind the unprecedented power to learn, understand and communicate ideas which themselves have transformed the world. And yet there are those intent on knocking words like beauty, love, truth, morality and excellence off their pedestals. Such words are increasingly losing their value and greeted with cynicism. In practice their meaning is now fragmented, pigeon-holed into syntactical structures of narrow social, psychological, political, religious or aesthetic contexts which we barely recognize. The challenge is: How to bring back the magic of the word?1
I should like young people to increase their employment of varied linguistic forms such as cockney rhymes, foreign expressions, puns, word associations, pleonasms, palindromes, oxymorons and euphemisms. This could enhance their appreciation of word magic. They might learn that some words are better than others and not merely copy what is fashionable at that instant. The uses of The Word as developed through generations is now increasingly restricted. Even the message OK has now been reduced to a simple ‘k’. This narrows both the opportunity for humor and individuality.2 I have found such impoverishment of language to be a little noticed side-effect of the extraordinary expansion of the use of the Internet.
Enrichment is possible: Words which are associated with delight and happiness, for example, arouse specific circuits in our brains. Certain words and expressions can trigger strong emotional responses: Ecstatic, sublime, supernatural, glorious, wondrous, breathless, radiant, other-worldly, sublime, buoyant, bright, illuminating, exhilarating, uplifting, nirvana-like, and divine can all spark positive reactions. So can phrases such as: vivid as lightning, gusts of splendor, superhuman joy, sudden rapture, on the fringe of ecstasy, filled with excitation, or in communion with spirits — all expressions the like of which one does not currently find in everyday communications — which enhance our pleasure in existence itself.3 Words and expressions which arouse awe in children are sometimes obvious: They love the word “Awesome!” It is an oft repeated favorite.
Euphemisms, in which a figure of speech is substituted for one which is indelicate or possibly embarrassing, are disappearing from most internet communications. Euphemisms like “collateral damage” and “adult entertainment,” are widely employed by politicians to avoid confrontation with psychologically difficult reality. However, they do occasionally open up fresh opportunities for humor. “Breaking wind” or “passing gas” are euphemisms distinctly out of date. Such “windy words” are no longer fashionable. What has become of such comic flatulent expressions as:
- “Cushion Creeper”
- “Cutting the cheese”
- “One-cheek sneak”
- “Painting the elevator”
- “S.B.D.” (Silent-but-deadly)
In a less bodily context, swearing and cursing are human universals. Profane language has been with us since speech first came into existence. All languages and dialects have them. Researchers have found that three quarters of 18 to 35 year olds in the United States and half of those over 55 are used to swearing. Although swearing can be an art form — as evidenced by the brilliant ways Shakespeare used it in all his plays — the expletives on the internet show little variation or imagination.
Swearing on the internet — which is common — is very different from direct face to face encounters. The tone of voice, the look in the eyes, the positioning of the body, and the motion of the hands have been of the essence in everyday swearing. Such direct contact can strengthen the expression, making it open to more ironic, or even humorous, interpretations. Such possibilities are seldom exercised by the under 16s in communications which are minimal in terms of variation of style, context or subtlety. The younger generation is changing spellings, shortening words so they can be clicked more swiftly, and repeating items so often that their meaning is ultimately lost.
Swear words are principally drawn from bodily functions, sex and the domain of religion. What counts as taboo expressions in a given culture are often a mirror for the fears and fixations of its users. The outstanding science writer, Natalie Angier, has noted that swearing is a widespread but perhaps under-appreciated technique in anger management. Researchers have pointed out that cursing is frequently a mix of spontaneous feeling and targeted cunning, invoking close relationships with family members as well as past or present lovers. On the other hand, it can be shocking to hear a loud volley of expletives erupting for no apparent reason from the mouth of a teenager or an adult. Such outbursts frequently target racial backgrounds or parental ancestry. Evidence suggests that cursing and swearing also can be effective ways of venting aggression and thus forestalling physical violence.
Many modern Italian taboo words are rich expressions of regional origin. Alas, regional variations are disappearing almost everywhere. The different forms of insult humorously relating to women in Italy is revealing. Italians still enjoy the complex side-effects when playing with such words as:
- cavallona (street walker)
- cravattona (a lesbian prostitute)
- drondona (outspoken prostitute)
- putanella (a sweet prostitute)
- scopona (a sweeper prostitute)
- vaccaccia (a cow-like woman)
- zingarona (a gypsy woman)4
Swear words and curses using the name of god or gods go back to the days of ancient Babylon. Swearing by the name of a god was at that time an assurance that those uttering such a taboo were not lying. People believed that swearing falsely would bring the dreadful wrath of that god upon them. The biblical commandment that one must not “take the Lord’s name in vain” was a warning against abuse of the sacred oath. The Jews held the very name of “God” so highly that it could never be pronounced or used in writing or speech. Instead, references to the almighty included substitutions like lord, king, celestial master etc. Among Christians, the stricture against taking God’s name in vain extended to allusions to Jesus or to his corporal sufferings. Swearing which included the word “blood” was taboo. Invoking the name of God was to some a way of adding impact to an assertion. Today the quaint expression “Oh golly!” is considered almost comically, but golly is in fact a compact version of “God’s body” which once was held to be profane. “Blimey!” is a euphemism for “God blind me” and the exclamation “Zounds!” refers to God’s wounds.
Shakespeare could hardly quill a page without inserting profanities of the day like “Sblood!” or “Zounds!” These words aroused his audiences and delivered verbal jolts. Today the expressions hardly draw any notice. Now the free flow of foul language often is regarded as a sign of being at ease. While four-letter words in a brawl can lead to violence, those same words in a living-room setting can be interpreted as an expression of trust and social acceptance. While I tend to admire well-venomed retorts, I am appealing for the greater use of more imaginative expressions in our everyday language, words which will augment our appreciation and engagement. Cockney rhymes, for example, are a witty, slanguage way to titillate the brain. For example: “heavens above” matches love and “threepenny bits” is a rhyme for tits.5
Students in school are seldom exposed to cockney or different ways to enrich their language. Teachers should urge their pupils to play with words and to develop their verbal imaginations for ultimately the enrichment of our language depends on the variety of used expressions. It is true that new words, like bitcoin and selfie, are entering our vocabulary all the time. (Chambers English dictionary added a thousand new entries in July). However, most of these newcomers involve our rapidly expanding technologies but do not widen our psyche’s horizons.6
Language, which depends on words, can trigger much that is positive in us. Admittedly, some people are so embarrassed by contentious words that they prefer to mumble as a way of covering up what they don’t really want to say. Famously, Alan Greenspan pronounced: “Since I have become a central banker, I have learned to mumble with great incoherence. If I seem unduly clear to you, you must have misunderstood what I said.” Perhaps mumbling may be one technique which could lighten up the tired feeling now surrounding the over-use of four letter anglo-saxon expletives! Whimsically, instead of using words we could stutter: ffffff! shshshsh! or susususu!
1Yorick Blumenfeld, Towards the Millennium: Optimistic Visions for Change, 1997, pp.94-96
2Mississippi folk humor used to be filled with expressions which captured the spirit of the local inhabitants. For example, a stout woman was “beef to the heels.” An inexperienced youth was described as being “So green that when it rains he’ll sprout.” A politician’s aggressive pursuits were described as “He was after it like the stink after onion.” A fellow with inertia was said to “have been born lazy and had a relapse.” B.A. Botkin, A Treasury of Southern Folklore (1949) p. 674
3Marghanita Laski, Ecstasy, 1961, p 245
4Salvatore Battaglie, La grammatica Italiana, (1957) pp.135-136.
5Leonard Ashley, “The Cockney’s Horn Book,” in Opus Maledictorum (edited by Rheinhold Aman)1996, p.54
6Lauren Laverne, New Vocabulary, The Observer Magazine, August 10, 2014, p.7