Sometimes I amaze even myself.
Yesterday when my daughter asked me, “Why are there bad words?” I had an explanation even I didn’t know I had. Some of the explanations I didn’t land on include responses I’ve accepted in the past.
Such as, “Some feelings are so strong that a word not usually appropriate becomes appropriate in that moment.” Or “because people who use bad words are too stupid to come up with a better way to express themselves.”
In the span of 30 seconds, while I still had her attention, I asked her if she realized that language is, at its core, symbolic. It’s just a bunch of metaphors.
I could have gone into all the ways that language is a metaphor (just think of the word “tongue” as both a physical part of your body and the shared spoken means of communication among a group of people–one is concrete, the other abstract).
But instead I stepped right into colorful metaphors. Except I dodged the useless metaphorical landmines of ripe dog droppings that some people refer to in place of the word “stuff.”
I filled the remainder of my 30 seconds with, “A word is just a bunch of letters that have meaning to us. If we didn’t know what a word meant, the word could not be hurtful or helpful. But some words refer to something real that hits you at such a gut level…(I lost her here)…that you can hardly escape their meaning.”
[If you are in the habit of reading my long-winded, tedious, and confusing blog posts out loud in front of your children, be advised that a “bad” word will soon be discussed.]
The other day, because we are in the midst of having our home built (we help where we can), my husband learned that the term “Master Bedroom”–referring to the owner’s fancy room–is going the way of the Confederate flags and other monuments to slavery.
“Good,” I thought. “It’s about time.”
It didn’t occur to me until later to wonder what the messenger thought of this change in terminology. I asked my husband who didn’t even look away from his screen to say, “Oh, you know: political correctness.”
Of course that got me thinking. Not because I wasn’t already thinking, but because I wondered how I could have responded had the circumstances been different.
What would I have said to convey the power of a single word?
My brain formed a wordy (abstract) answer as I fell asleep last night. I awoke petrified and drenched from the animated (concrete) version my brain created, but that is a story for another post.
What I imagine I could have said:
“Yeah, it is funny how people can get so offended over a single word. It’s not as if anyone is referring to a slave owner when they call this the Master Bedroom. It just means the homeowner’s room.”
I pause for a moment to get my deeper brain going.
“…although, here’s another way to look at it. Do you know what a bitch is?”
Of course he knows. He owns dogs. So it’s the same answer my dad gave me and I gave my first-grade classmate when he insisted bitch was a swear word.
“It’s a female dog.”
“So no big deal, right? Female horses are mares. Female chickens are hens. Ewes, sows, cows,* nannies–all words for the females of their species. No big deal, right?”
[We’re going to keep his answers rhetorical since I can’t speak for him, and because even though I’m borrowing his persona for the sake of making a point, in real life, I respect him a great deal and would hopefully show that respect by taking the time to offer this perspective.]
“Yeah, no big deal. Except…” and my mouth twitches downward momentarily as I ask,
Have you ever been called a bitch?
Because I have.
Years gone by and still, I remember it clearly. I was eight years old. A child on a school field. It was the first week of third grade, and I didn’t care that girls didn’t play sports during recess. I liked what the boys were doing better, so I joined them. It was the last recess of the day, a blistering August afternoon.
As I ran toward the soccer ball my friend and I were kicking around, a fifth grade boy in a sweaty white t-shirt knocked hard into my side as he ran for the football his friend had thrown. I was big for my age, but this kid looked like a muscled farm boy with a troubled home life (some people use the term “white trash”), so when he socked me in the arm and bellowed, “Stay out of my way, bitch!” I knew he hadn’t simply mistaken me for a female dog. I felt as cowed as he had wanted me to feel.**
I learned in the abstract what the bad word bitch meant.
Less than a week later, another bully drove the point home with the concrete meaning of bitch.
Tony should have been in fourth grade. He had scars on his face like he’d already been in a few bar fights. One of his front teeth had permanently disappeared. His jaw was set with the under-bite of a bull dog and his eyes glinted with the menacing delight of a cat playing with its prey.
I knew he was dangerous from the moment I saw him. That was four years earlier on my first day of kindergarten. I had arrived late and already missed the “gathering recess.” My best (boy) friend advised me and my sister during the next recess to steer clear of Tony, who hadn’t passed kindergarten and was, instead, in Transitional First Grade. He was also, by means I couldn’t understand at the time, the uncle of my classmate, Rudy.
I just never expected to find him at my friend’s house that Friday afternoon in early September.
I had climbed over the six-foot privacy fence to our backdoor neighbor’s house. Brady wasn’t exactly what you would describe as a friend. He was a playmate who sometimes terrorized me and my twin sister but whose parents adored us, so we just kept giving their offspring another chance.
He played all the boy sports, so we took a particular interest in him as we were probably twice his size and tackle football hadn’t been banned at his house. His dad wanted him to toughen up, and as it turns out, my sister and I provided both the humiliation and the force required to knock him flat so he could learn to “take it like a man.”
Usually he just ran off and cried. Or threw bricks at younger kids.
But where we really found our stride as playmates was in the hunting game. You see, his father was a big hunter. You could tell because of the gun case Brady had shown us many times and because of the many animal heads staring at us from the walls of their home. They later added onto their house just to make room for more trophies.
Furthermore, my sister and I played dogs superbly. We had practiced with Maylin, who also should have been in fourth grade. It occurs to me now that she must have spent an entire year with Tony in that T-1 classroom. How awful.
Anyway, Maylin always insisted on being Brandy, after the dog of her pre-school years. My sister and I were Mandy and Sandy, and if my younger brother played, he was Andy. Apparently -andy was the -aden of the 1980s.
So Brady with a toy rifle slung over his shoulder, a trusty dog at his side, and a Bambi’s mother among the lilac bushes made for a frolicsome afternoon. I learned the word camoflauge, Brady learned that he could enjoy the great outdoors by peeing on the side of the house. Just kids being kids.
So why would this Friday in 1989 be any different?
Because Tony was dangerous.
I don’t know what Tony had experienced, how he had been treated, or what he had been exposed to, but whatever line I had stood in to get a second helping of guilt/shame/self-blame, he had skipped entirely. I had never seen him run off and cry, but now I have to wonder if shame just showed up differently for him.
He had, though, taught me the sign language for asshole, how to make a dandelion into a voodoo doll, and the lyrics to what I could only guess was a highly sexualized version of “A Tisket a Tasket.” He managed to turn a kids’ clapping game (made famous by Tom Hanks in the movie Big) into something that sounded dirty.
But for some reason, I never asked him to behave better. I never said, “If you’re over here at Brady’s house, I refuse to come over.” I had to be nice. I knew when something was wrong, but I didn’t know how to stand up for myself. He was dangerous, but I had to turn the other cheek.
Until he grabbed me by both.
My sister and I arrived at Brady’s house in the late afternoon of that September Friday. I wore a knit tie-dye dress. It hit at the knees, and I probably wore shorts under it so I could do cartwheels and headstands without embarrassing anyone.
The boys had been playing a game less appropriate for girls, so we finally settled on playing “hunting.” I was the dog, Brady the hunter, my sister the prey, and that left Tony as…the other dog? He seemed pretty keen on the idea.
Not long into the game, as I innocently played my role on all fours, he came up behind me, grabbed my hips and pretended to mount me. He thrust against my body. I reared up and swung at him (he was still on his knees), but I only managed to knock him off balance.
He fell to the floor laughing and pointed at me. His gravelly voice jabbed at me: “What’s wrong? Didn’t you know that’s how dogs do it?”
I wish I could say I got up and kicked him where he lay. That I’d made him regret the moment he had taken an innocent game and turned it into a trespass against my body.
But we just went back to the game because I figured I’d established I wouldn’t tolerate that behavior from him. We left much earlier than planned. As I climbed the fence again, my usually adept legs still shook.
I did tell my parents what had happened, and they agreed I shouldn’t play with him again and that I was welcome to fight back however I could if someone did something like that again.
I had also just begun to develop into a woman, so now I not only wondered if I had caused his behavior but whether my changing body would make these encounters even more likely. Events from inside of me and outside of me happening against my will.
Shame and self-blame formed a self-feeding monster who told me I wasn’t worth standing up for. How fortunate I am that no worse attempts at humiliation or dominance were ever made on me by anyone. And when I saw bullies threatening or harming my younger brother, I recall throwing some punches in his defense at least.
That doesn’t mean the shame went away, though.
Shame might explain why, when I sat in another one of those “How-to-Not-Kill-Yourself-or-Get-Raped-Shock’em-Straight” assemblies [see this earlier post] in high school, the motivational speaker finally got through my eye-rolling exterior. I don’t remember the lead-in, but I burst into tears when he pointedly said, “Ladies, if a guy ever calls you a bitch, you pound his face in. Don’t ever put up with someone who treats you that way.”
Too late, I wept. Too late.
If I were to learn that the American Kennel Club and all its sponsors had decided to no longer refer to female dogs as bitches, I would burst into tears where I stood. But this time my tears would signal relief, not regret.
There is only one Master, and He is the end-all, be-all (as in the omnipotent Alpha and Omega). He paid a price for us so that we could have claim on mercy without giving up our will or our identity. No one else ought to claim such a role in relation to their fellow beings.
Certainly you could achieve master-level in a skill or field of study. I can also understand how the original of something could be the “master” copy, for we are created in the image of our Master. But ownership deserves no such title, especially by humans claiming to own other humans.
Let’s circle back to the beginning. Words are metaphors, abstract concepts attached to meaning. What they represent, what their power draws on, is experience. That is the concrete we hold onto.
Instead of thinking of words as “politically correct,” what if we interpret that term to mean “people-aligned,” or “in recognition of another’s concrete experience?” It may be difficult to grasp the abstraction of a word, but its power came from a concrete event, pattern, or act that affect(ed) our fellow beings in ways so profound that the word no longer gets to maintain its original meaning. It is time to let it go and find a new name for the concrete that we thought was “no big deal.”
Tiny side note–I’m working harder on not saying “bad” words, so I totally understand how they can become habitual.
Also, I might be onto what happened in third grade that amplified my shame and self-criticism (see this recent post). These blogs are certainly therapeutic for me.
*Cow is a derogatory term in Great Britain
**Cowed means intimidated. Interesting that “bully” sounds a lot like bull, which might be a good word to change since women can bully also.