What’s in a word?

Florida politicians have decided that ‘gay’ shan’t be uttered in their schools, their Senate having recently passed their ‘Don’t Say Gay‘ bill, a bill Tuesday that would prohibit “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in the state’s primary schools.

I don’t happen to agree with speech censorship, and I feel the politically correct speech vendetta is bollox. As a linguaphile, I don’t feel that words hold the meaning we ascribe to them. And I do feel it to be somewhat hypocritical for one group to say ‘don’t use words F, U, and N’ whilst simultaneously complaining that another side asks not to use other words—L, G, B, T, and Q’.

In the English-speaking West, we are concerned with words. Despite being raised hearing the familiar ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names shall never hurt me’, yet then worrying about hurtful words. It’s risible. Like the Floridian politicos, some people think words are magic—and not just like Harry Potter magic, or then again perhaps so.

I discovered when I lived in Japan that they don’t have swear words. This is a Western notion likely stemming from the repression generated by Abrahamic religions, commenced with not uttering the name of Jehova. And then we have levels of swear words. American and British English not only have different swear words, some of the same words fall into different offence-severity categories. I’ll get back to this. I recall when I studied French, pouring through my Larousse or Collins-Robert dictionary and seeing their asterisk system—ranging from 0 to 3.

Of course, 0-level words are everyday words one might choose to use in polite company. Level-1 words are considered to be mildly offensive. In English, these words might include damn, bitch, bastard, crap, or bollox—perhaps merde en français; level-2 words might be shit, bullshit, bollox, tits, arsehole, or asshole;—perhaps putain en français (not to be confused with poutine, which is not at all a swear word); level-3 words might include fuck and any of its derivatives, cocksucker, or cunt—perhaps pute en français. Interestingly, cunt is a level-3 word in American English, but more like a level-2 word in British English. At least it’s bandied about a lot more often. As for the French, con, operates at the same level as its British counterpart.

If this doesn’t convince the reader that it’s not all made up, I don’t know what will.

My point is that it’s not the words that hold the offence. It’s the intent behind them. For me, intent is just another weasel word. Unfortunately—and although entire legal systems are built on the concept—intent cannot be discerned. The culprit is intent, not lexical elements. And, yes, context is everything. Moderate politicians hoping on the PC bandwagon from the 1980s until now are the problem. Somehow, the wagon they hopped on is authoritarian and prescriptive—positions more often associated with people a bit further to the Right. But this still doesn’t address the notion of intent.

My position is that children are likely going to encounter same-sex couples. The agenda of those who don’t want it taught don’t want it to be normalised. Interestingly enough, Foucault—a notorious gay philosopher—argued against normalisation. It should be obvious that this would be his view given his position that normalisation is a control mechanism. Better to cherish the difference than to integrate.

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