Monday, February 8, 2010

The S-word, the R-word, and the F-word

When my daughter was about 4, she tattle-taled that her 5-year-old brother had said "the S-word." This didn't seem right to me; even though my wife and enjoy cussing, I was pretty confident that we'd shielded their young ears from four-letter words to that point. (That's no longer the case.)

After a bit of cross examination, I managed to get her to reveal that Nick had actually said "stupid"--yes, a banned word in our household, though mercifully not the one I'd feared.

Which brings me to the recent kerfuffle about "the R-word" as a placeholder for the word retard or retarded. I will say that Rahm Emmanuel's use of it, paired with the F-word gerund, is appalling language for a person in the public eye. It was appropriate for him to apologize. On the other hand, I'm not on board with the pledges to forcibly remove retard or retarded from the everyday lexicon, and scrubbing it from U.S. law seems quixotic at best, Orwellian at worst. It is a completely inappropriate pejorative, but where do you stop? Languages are full of nasty, hateful words.

I'm confident that turning "the R-word" into a euphemism for an ugly phrase doesn't solve the root problem, which is crudeness and thoughtlessness. Anyone with a brain knows EXACTLY what the placeholder means. That's why I loathe the phrase "the N-word." Hiding behind that "N" is a concept at its ugliest.

On a lighter note, I wonder who's in charge of deciding which word gets first rights to the use of each of the letters in the alphabet. (The OED?) On occasion, I'll jokingly call freelancing "the other F-word," because so many people have had a bad experience on one side of the fence or the other. But right now, you can just call me "the B-word": bored with the whole stupid issue.


  1. Funny, astute, and well-said. And "the other F-word" made me roar with appreciation! Kudos, Jake!!

  2. Ah yes, we could go on and on...but the bottom line is the hatefulness and thoughtlessness that serves as the foundation for such "words". We have the whole alphabet covered here in Hooterville!
    Nicely done.

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Mark.

    Thanks, adchick--and please send over the glossary when you have a minute!

  4. Funny, well-written and oh-so-true! As a word nerd, I have had countless arguements about the origins of words and the exact meanings of words, but you are correct in saying the root problem is thoughtlessness.

    Banning words won't stop people from behaving in the small, ugly ways people have always behaved. It will simply force mean people to assign apparently innocuous words different meanings. Language changes all the time, consider the evolution of the word gay.

  5. Thanks for chiming in, STW, and a good point about language evolution. Consider, too, how groups use certain highly charged words freely among their members, but if you're from outside the's considered offensive!