Friday, December 19, 2008

The Importance of Context

Context is everything.

Yesterday Ainsley brought home one of those flip-books I've talked about which lists this week's rhyming vocabulary words. This week the words all end in "ell". The first word guessed it! Hell! That favorite Catholic school subject.

Later in the afternoon I took her to swim lessons. We got there earlier than usual, and Ains did some stretches and warm-ups she apparently has learned in gym class. At one point she tipped her head back and stretched her fingers up and got a good look at the insulated ceiling above the pool.

"That ceiling is so high!" she said. "This whole place is huge! What the hell were they thinking?"

Say what?

I asked her to repeat herself.

She dodged. "I said, what were they thinking?"

"Ainsley, that's not what you said. You said something else."


"Yes, Ainsley. Now, you know that that's not a very nice word."

"No, I didn't know that. It's one of our spelling words."


Now, she doesn't exactly get a free pass. She knew enough to not repeat it. But she makes a good point.

I wasn't entirely accurate when I told her "hell" is a bad word. Used as a noun, it's said quite a bit at her school and in her church. But make it an exclamation, and everything changes. Or, leave it as a noun meaning a place, and tell someone to go there, and the same word that probably shows up as an answer on the kid's religion tests would suddenly cause a trip to the principal's office.

Not to get all George Carlin on you, but why is there this double standard? Why is "hell" a spelling word this week when she can't use the word in all its possible, multi-layered and complex contexts? Why are "bad" words so taboo?

I myself am guilty of it. I won't write it out, but I will occasionally put "WTF?" into a blog post. I am not entirely comfortable writing the "F" word in a blog that polite people read, but I am completely and hypocritically comfortable writing that text-message-era abbreviation and then making you think that word inside your head! Every time I do that, I make you hear a word that's too taboo for me to write out on a blog I sometimes edit at work.

That is soooo messed up.

It wouldn't take much for me to agree with those that say making a word taboo is giving that word power. If there were no "bad" words, if there weren't a list of seven words you can't say on television and so forth, they would lose some of that charm that makes every kid eventually try them on for size and test out their shock value.

But then there would still be the type of "bad" words that just by their happy arrangement of vowels and consonants bother, annoy, or offend people. Or words for which the taboo is so deep they will never outlive that, regardless of context. My husband doesn't mind hearing me throw out a four-letter word when I stub my toe on the hamper at 4am, but if I say I am making a "sauce" for our chicken entree he almost gags. I am not offended by much, but there is one word for a part of the female anatomy that I will never, ever be okay hearing. Partly because it's a word that just sounds gross; partly because it's demeaning. How much is because it's taboo and how much is because some of us are simply word people I don't know.

I do know that I cannot wait until Ainsley bring home a flip book of "uck" words.

No comments: