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  • Monday, March 10, 2008


    #*$% and $!&@: Aspects of Socially Forbidden Language

    A few days ago, I found myself using the word "poop" instead of my more common "shit". I have no children and was not in mixed company where anyone would be offended by my choice of words. Where had this word come from?

    What I realized was I had been watching too much television, where the word "poop" had every chance of escaping the censor's bleep but "shit" was rarely heard outside of premium channels. This got me wondering about the social and environmental influences on word choice and expression.

    Long-time readers of my blog will know I have a fascination with language, from word origins to obscure definitions of common words. Despite my expansive vocabulary, I'm just as prone as the next person to use expletives for emphasis in my speech. I try to not overuse such words because they become useless with massive repetition, meaningless verbal tics like "um" and "you know." Any "curse" word becomes colorless and lacking in impact when used more than three times in a single sentence, something I've often seen on MTV and various reality shows.

    I have no objection to these fricative and plosive words on moral grounds. All words have their place in communication and expression. Shouting "Fuck!" is an excellent tension release when you accidentally hit your finger with a hammer. (Linguists have studied the reasons why some words combine sound, meaning and social taboo to form a "curse" word that is a satisfying expression on more than one level but I won't bore you with this info right now.) Many of our most common curse words have long histories. ("Fuck," I believe, was first written down in the 13th century and undoubtedly was spoken before that instance.) Their usage is hallowed by time and convention even if they are frowned on in certain circles and circumstances.

    I'm a big fan of using appropriate and simple words when possible. For example, when describing excrement, I prefer using "shit" to "feces" because shit is more common and widely used and understood. I suspect I'm like everyone else when it comes to speaking or writing to my audience: I tailor my vocabulary to suit the person/people I'm talking to. This is part courtesy and part intelligent communication technique. I do not use curse words unless the other person uses them first and even then I may be cautious or decide to refrain from such expressions anyway.

    This brings me back to "poop." This is not a word I commonly use. While there are occasions where I might use it if necessary (perhaps around young children,) it isn't part of my regular speech patterns. Yet here it was, tripping off my tongue and out of my mouth when I least expected it. It was a puzzlement.

    TV has been bleeping certain words for quite a long time. At one point not too long ago, you wouldn't even have heard the censorious bleeps very often on TV; such language was routinely edited out entirely. Whole scenes and interviews were eliminated merely because of the "bad" language content. The rise of unscripted dramas ("reality" shows) have put more "non-professional" people in front of the camera speaking with their normal everyday speech patterns. Previously, TV shows consisted almost entirely of actors, TV journalists, talk show hosts, pundits, etc. and these people either had scripted lines or they were trained to never say these sorts of words on air. They would very probably be fired for uttering them on air even once.

    TV has become a form of social interaction. We, as passive consumers of TV, are encouraged to emulate our favourite stars. Entertainment news shows and magazines often lead us to refer to celebrities by their first names as if the celebs were our friends. If I say the name Britney in the USA, the vast majority of people will assume I'm referring to Britney Spears. The speech patterns of the semi-famous on TV, even if only on a reality show, are communicated to us, with emotions and "unscripted" situations that provide context and examples of usage. The shows are rerun over and over, then there are the spinoffs and new seasons. These shows provide a tutorial of socially acceptable and appropriate language and communication for the viewing public, even when the words are bleeped out.

    So, what did I learn from my uncharacteristic utterance of "poop?" Apparently, on some unconscious level, I noticed that the word "poop" was not bleeped on TV, that it was an "allowed" word. My long-standing pattern of using "shit" in almost all circumstances, from descriptive to expletive, was changed at least for a moment without my awareness until it had happened.

    Bingo, I am a victim of the pasteurization of language by censors. What is glaringly obvious to me is this: TV is not real life.

    "Oh," you say, "what are you, an idiot? Of course TV isn't real. (I'm really worried about you. Do you need professional psychiatric help or an intervention?)"

    (Thank you for your concern but no to both.) If you spend a significant part of your day watching TV, over time you begin to adapt the attitudes, the values, the ethic of TVworld. Not wholesale, of course, not unless you're a very suggestable person. Little bits seep into your mind, little bits of TV logic, TV language, TV politics. These things begin to seem like reasonable ways of looking at the world. Soon you've spend 30 hours of your life watching American Idol as if the outcome was actually important or significant. Or you watch the evening news and begin to believe the only important events/stories in the world are ones on American TV.

    I try hard to be aware and conscious of this process and yet I still uttered this strange and uncharacteristic "poop". It's a moment of feeling like I'm a Manchurian Candidate or something. OK, I'm not programmed to kill (as far as I know) but finding something not-me, even as small and minor as a single word choice, is a little disturbing. I begin to wonder what else is lurking under the surface, what alien thought patterns have I absorbed without thinking? How can I block this invasion of my mind?

    Oops, gotta go. Idol will be on soon. Or is it The Biggest Loser? I forget. Why should I worry about this? It's not important, is it? Whatever, dude.

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