And there are no “bad” words. There are only words used imprecisely and inaccurately in inappropriate contexts.
Words are essentially neutral. They are arbitrary constructs of letters or sounds that by themselves carry no meaning. The easiest way to confirm this is to look at how different languages label specific things: cat, dog, fish, house. No two languages use exactly the same arrangement of letters or sounds to refer to these universal (or at least planetary) concepts. In fact, some languages do not even share the same physical symbols for sounds (for example, Japanese and Chinese ideographs compared with western letters). And most languages contain sounds that are often difficult if not impossible for speakers of other languages to replicate. The slightest movement of the tongue against the teeth, or an infinitesimal shift of the jaw, or a minor drop in pitch in speaking can transform a word and, knowingly or not, force it to refer to something unintended.
Yet in every composition or creative writing class I have taught, at some point someone would ask if it was permitted to use “bad” words. There was no question what the students meant; there are certain of those arbitrary constructs of letters and sounds that our culture has deemed unsuitable for polite discourse. At one point or another in history, however, most of those words were acceptable, at least when spoken. In the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, written by the Father of English Poetry and intended primarily for an aristocratic/noble audience (there were few other audiences at the time for physical books), Chaucer writes:
And shame it is, is a prest take keep,
A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep.
Wel oghte a preese ensample for to yive,
By his clennesse, how that his sheep sholde lyve.
If the Middle-English seems difficult, read the passage out loud, using modern pronunciation and ignoring any problematical final e. There the offending word is, in written verse, and no one appears to have objected at the time.
Similarly, words which societies at one time considered improper now fit perfectly well into conversation and writing. Sweater raised the hackles of Victorians, perhaps because it referred openly to a bodily function; pullover or cardigan were preferred. Bleachers likewise indicated that the speaker/writer was of a lower class.
(Note: I realize that there is one word—the bad word—that has never been acceptable, but I will talk about it later.)
The terms most helpful in determining when most words are “good” or “bad” are denotation and connotation.
Denotation: The first is the most straightforward. It simply means “what the word means.”
Meaning itself is complex. As noted above, words don’t actually mean anything; we assign meanings to certain strings of letters or collations of sounds. There is nothing inherently “doggish” about d-o-g, yet most English speakers and readers know in general what it refers to—a four-legged, hairy mammal that goes bow-wow. In Finnish, of course, it might go vuff; in Japanese, wan-wan, and so on. But in general, we recognize a dog when we see one.
English-speaking societies have tacitly agreed that that particular sets of symbols represent certain things. Through time, such agreements may shift and words take on vastly different meanings. Knight (back when it was usually spelled cniht) initially meant boy or servant; now it refers to a man holding a specific level within a hierarchy of rank, one who usually has servants of his own.
It becomes important, then, to recognize that words can be slippery things. With the internet and its access to world-wide spoken and written languages, words can and do change meanings rapidly…or, perhaps more frustrating, accumulate new meanings, often at odds with the original senses. Cleave, as used in the King James Version of the Bible—“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh”— means ‘to hold to, to adhere, to be close’; when used in modern parlance, it is more likely to mean ‘to separate, to cut apart, as with a cleaver.’ I might use it in the older sense; you might read it and assign the modern sense to it…and whatever I meant to say is lost in confusion.
To take another example, a more common one. Set comes from an old Germanic root meaning ‘to sit.’ A thousand years or so later, it can mean many more things: a television set, a set of encyclopedias, to set the table, wait for concrete to set, set one’s hair, find that the Jell-O hasn’t set. Same word, entirely different denotations. In fact, in the Oxford English Dictionary, the word has over 140 meanings, none of them repetitions.
So I say set; you hear set—and there’s a good chance we still are not communicating precisely. Here, context becomes crucial. One does not, for example, want the Jell-O to set in exactly the same was as concrete sets.
Connotation: Words not only have lexical, that is dictionary-based, meanings, but they also have a sphere of emotional suggestions attached to them. Few words outside the mostly functional terms in English—is, are, was, were, to, from, and, but, and others—mean only what the dictionary says. For various reasons, whether cultural, regional, or personal, most words echo not only in our brains but in our hearts…and occasionally in our nervous systems. When that happens, we have entered the realm of connotation.
In my classes, I would frequently write the word cellar on the board and ask the students if they responded positively or negatively to it. In almost every case, the result was a 50/50 split, with a handful or so remaining neutral.
When I asked for reasons why the word was positive, I got answers that ranged from “That was where we played as children,” to “There were always secrets and mysteries, old furniture, interesting things to explore,” to “That’s where Grandma kept the ice cream.”
Most of the neutrals admitted that they had never lived in a house with a cellar, so generally they didn’t even think about the word.
The negatives…ah, the negatives spoke to my horror-writer imagination: “dark,” “creepy,” dirt floor covered with some kind of white crusty stuff,” “windowless,” “10-watt light bulb,” “shadowy,” and on and on.
Same word. For one group, shivers of anticipation and warm memories; for another group, shivers of quite another kind.
Many words just don’t fit certain contexts, not because of what the word might mean but because of cultural associations build into them. “The bride was resplendent in her gown of white satin and floor-length lace veil”—acceptable so far, but what if the sentence ends with—“with a lovely bouquet of fragrant lilies in her fist”?
Wrong word, even though, if we imagine the situation and see the bride’s hand gripping the bouquet, perhaps her knuckles white from nervousness and tension and anticipation, the word fist may be literally appropriate.
This kind of wobble occurs more frequently than any others in the manuscripts and printed texts I’ve read lately. The almost-the-right word slips in unnoticed by the writer; but the reader notices and experiences a slight start.
Too many startling moments, and the reader might just decide to go elsewhere for entertainment.
For writers of fiction—and especially for writers of horror fiction or dark fiction—connotation may be as important, even more important, than denotation. English has the largest vocabulary of any modern language group. There may be many words that denotatively fit a context; but to create atmosphere, to delineate character, to establish a landscape, there may be only one that works connotatively. Quick example: Why do we say “Pacific Ocean” and not “Pacific Sea,” or “South Seas” and not “South Oceans”? Denotatively the two key words mean ‘large bodies of water’, but they are not precisely interchangeable.
“Good” words, then, are words that have precisely the meaning intended, that are used in a context that will clarify any potential ambiguities, and that are appropriate to the desired audience. One of my favorite words, “Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis,” while devised in 1935 to make a point, is nonetheless a “good” word when used medically or as an example of a long word. If a doctor is addressing a group of miners on the subject of the dangers of their profession, however, it would be a “bad” word—probably no one there except the doctor would know what it means. The appropriate “good” word for that audience would be “black lung.” It means the same thing, but the latter phrase more clearly defines something they might have experienced.
“Bad” words create a bit more difficulty.
In one sense, a “bad” word is any word that is difficult for the audience—whether readers or listeners—to understand within the context. When I was in high school, I discovered the beauties of the thesaurus. I wrote an essay for English, looking up six common words and replacing them with “better” words—that is, with longer, Latinate, complex terms. I didn’t know Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis at the time, or I might have been tempted to slide it in.
When the teacher returned the paper, it had eight marks on it. One was the grade in the upper right-hand corner. Numbers two through six were red circles around every fancy word I had used. And number seven was a curt note: “Burn your thesaurus!”
I’ve since learned that a thesaurus can be a helpful tool, if a treacherous crutch. But I also learned my lesson: Don’t use a long word unless it is a “good” word—fitting to the meaning intended, the context, and the audience. I’m sure the teacher understood the words, but they just did not fit into a high-school freshman essay.
Even what we traditionally consider “bad” words may function as “good” words.
C.S. Lewis’s children’s fantasy The Magician’s Nephew (1955) is thematically and chronologically the first of the Chronicles of Narnia, even though it was the sixth written of seven. Just about in the middle of the book, one of the characters, Uncle Andrew, is rather roughly treated by some of the newly created animals of Narnia. When he has reached his limit, he says, “Damn!” Not much in the way of swearing for contemporary readers but a shocker to find in a children’s book in the mid-1950s. More than that, it is the first occurrence of any such language, or thinking, in the nascent Narnia, and signals the more serious fall to come with the eventual arrival of the White Witch. It distorts the perfection of Narnia, it jars with the courtliness of speech that has been developing, it resonates uncomfortably through the remaining volumes, and it demonstrates that Lewis knew precisely when and how to use a “good” “bad” word.
Another example: As a junior in college, I heard one of my professors talking about “bad” words. His father, he said, was a rough-and-tumble man, rugged, largely unlearned, who apparently did not fully understand what made his rather short, bookish son tick. Just before my professor went off to college (the first, I believe, in his family to do so), he spent the summer working with his father…quite literally digging ditches.
On the afternoon of the last day before he was to leave for school, he and his father were sitting on the edge of a trench they had just finished. His father sat quietly for a while, then reached down, squeezed his son’s knee, and said, “Ya did a good job, ya little bastard.”
My professor said that those words struck him straight to the heart. He recognized at once that that was the only way his father had of saying “I love you.” He had used the language and the structures appropriate to his life, to his education, to his outlook. He could not have said it any other way.
I strongly suspect, given the time that has passed since first hearing that anecdote, that his father probably said something stronger than bastard, something that would have been wholly out of place in a sedate English classroom in a small, religiously-based liberal-arts college in the late 1960s. But even as stated, the story made its point. In that context, to that audience, coming from that speaker, bastard was a “good” word. It communicated precisely what the speaker intended.
Which leads us to…the word. The only English word that has never been socially acceptable, that for centuries was prohibited in writing, and that until the mid-1900s rarely if ever appeared.
Some years ago, while teaching Freshman Composition at UCLA, I asked the students to write an essay tracking how a word had changed meanings over time. I left the choice largely up to them (after excluding words like reality and meaning—I couldn’t face the probable redundancies), including obscenities and vulgarisms as options.
A few days later, on young woman in the class stayed after to tell me something that had happened. She was typing her draft at home (this was long before computers and laptops became popular) when her father walked by. He glanced at the paper in the typewriter, took another step or two, did a classic double-take, and stormed back.
“Don’t worry, Daddy,” she said, pointing to the word fuck at the top of the page. “I’m just talking about it. I’m not saying it.”
Half a dozen others chose the same word; largely because of the onus the word has developed when written, those papers were among the stiffest, most awkward, least confident essays I ever received, even though I remain convinced that more than a few of those students actually spoke the word regularly. They just couldn’t write it.
More than thirty years have passed since then, and the word has suffered a sea-change. Where before using it assured the text of a certain shock value, a kind of verbal intimidation, and the writer of equally certain notoriety, in contemporary prose very nearly the opposite happens.
The more often the word appears, the less shocking it is.
I have used it. Three times in The House Beyond the Hill, with one of those occurrences on the first page. The speaker was not someone who would hit his thumb with a hammer and yell, “Oh golly-gee, shucky-darn!” I wanted his language to characterize him immediately, and I think it worked.
In The Slab, which is considerably longer and far more violent, one character says it once. The whole point of the word is to demonstrate graphically that his essential nature had altered from being in the house. That word defines how radically.
In reading contemporary horror—and particularly unpublished manuscripts—I am disturbed by how frequently writers simply let fly. Every sentence, sometimes every other word…and after the first few pages of that, the mind becomes numb. Instead of shocking and intimidating, instead of even offending, the word, subject to such overuse, does something infinitely worse.
It degenerates to a meaningless placeholder.
It becomes a cliché.
And, as with most clichés, readers simply tune it out. When that happens, it becomes truly a “bad” word.
So—“good”? or “bad”? As with so many things, the decision is left up to the writer, the final arbiter of whether or not a word is precise, accurate, and appropriate—that is, does it communicate a specific meaning clearly, unambiguously, and suitably to the intended audience. And as for that small class of “no-no” words that often cause so much furor…the lighter the tread, the better.
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Michael R. Collings is the Senior Publications Editor for JournalStone Publishing; an Emeritus professor of English from Pepperdine University; author of the best-selling horror novels The Slab and The House Beyond the Hill, as well as other novels and collections of short fiction, poetry, and literary essays; and an inveterate fan of all things grammatical and syntactical. His writing are available here, at starshineandshadows.com, at journalstone.com, and at hellnotes.com.