Learned Vol. 2, Issue 26
One of the more awkward areas of English teaching, especially to adults, is telling them which words they can and can't say. Why is it okay to call someone the c-word in Australia, but never in America? How come it's okay for one woman to call a female friend a slut or a bitch, but not for a man to do so? And why are gay men sometimes an exception to this? And let's not even start on the n-word.
In other words, navigating the art of swearing is a nightmare for non-native speakers.
Both Lenny Bruce and George Carlin got themselves arrested over routines about which words can and can't be said in public. Bruce, in 1966, listed nine words that would get him arrested every time he used them, and, in 1972, Carlin had seven words you couldn't say on television. What's interesting to me, right at this moment, is that of the nine words (Carlin's seven are contained within Bruce's nine), the scatological ones are becoming less offensive while the shameful one (e.g. those regarding sex) are as offensive as ever. That said, it's interesting that neither comic had any blasphemous words in their lists. Which begs the question, when did that change?
For example, “Get Behind Me Satan” is (a fantastic album by the White Stripes) a line said by Jesus after Satan came to tempt him after 40 days in the desert. And, somewhere in between these two uses, it became an expression used to reject temptation, be it an extra helping of dessert or black-tar heroin.
I was at a party a few weeks ago. Someone offered me cake. Although I declined, they insisted, so I said, “ah, behind me Satan!” Only, I had forgotten that this particular friend is a devout Catholic. I think I would have offended them less had I called them any number of other slurs. The key takeaway, I think, is that there are any number of originally religions phrases and idioms we use every day that are, except to a select few, completely non-offensive.
In Japan, slurs tend to be based around mental ability and they tend to sound soft to Western ears* - literally, the most offensive thing to call someone is a variation on the word stupid. But, because of the vast cultural differences between Japan and the West, some concepts, like blasphemy, have never really taken hold. So, when you hear a bunch of ten-year-olds screaming "oh my fucking god," they really have no idea what they're saying. They just heard it in a movie.
But, for us native English speakers, well, you might not say it in church or at the office, but you might in a soccer game. I would. I might even remember to feel slightly embarrassed afterward. But I wouldn't think I was committing an act of blasphemy so obscene that I would need to go to confession. And yet it's my job to try to explain why a person who might feel that bad about the phrase would find it offensive and why we shouldn't use it. To say it's a landmine would be putting it mildly.
The same holds true going the other direction. In Japan, poop and other bodily functions are much more matter-of-fact. So much so that there is an entire kanji workbook where Poop-sensei helps you learn how to write correctly. I don't think a "Mr. Shit teaches the ABCs" would go over so well in the States.
All of this is to say that there's a lot of talk these days about what is and isn't offensive but I think what's gotten lost in that is how willing we are to speak offensively and in a number of ways. So, maybe before dismissing someone's reason for taking offense, we should really look at our bad words and try to understand what we're really saying when we use them.
*Don't get me wrong: There are lots of well-meaning articles and think-pieces that like to talk about how Japanese doesn't have any swearwords. That is absolute and total bullshit. What is misunderstood is how strong Japan's sense of in or outside the group is. If you are inside a group where Korean people, for example, are disliked, you will hear any number of offensive stereotypes and slurs. If you are on the inside of a group who thinks it is okay to denigrate women there is an impressive list of derogatory words for women that translate, roughly, to slut and bitch, etc. However, for the most part, most Western tourists to Japan will never get deep enough inside any of these groups to ever hear these words and so the myth persists.
2 Being forty days tempted of the devil. And in those days he did eat nothing: and when they were ended, he afterward hungered.
3 And the devil said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread.
4 And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.
5 And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.
6 And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it.
7 If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine.
8 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.
Notable Events of the Year 1611:
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I finally got a chance to watch the Deadwood Movie and was pretty satisfied; I’m happy that so many shows, cancelled-too-soon and otherwise, are getting movies to finish up their stories.
This is nothing new, of course, Firefly begat Serenity, and both Veronica Mars and Dead Like Me had movies. This doesn’t even count all the prequels and sequel series coming around now, like Fuller House, the Conners, and Veronica Mars (again). But, I have to say that the surprise announcement of a Breaking Bad movie, coming on the heels of excellent prequel work (Better Call Saul) just made me extra happy. And then this preview dropped, and I’m ecstatic.
Next time: Smooth seas. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.