AMEND CORNER: Watching your language

Posted 1/25/18

My thoughts were triggered by our president’s alleged use of a certain four-letter word for human waste that many people consider vulgar or obscene to describe certain undeveloped nations.

The word in question is not a newcomer to English. In …

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AMEND CORNER: Watching your language


Since my last column, I have given considerable thought to our use and abuse of the English language.

My thoughts were triggered by our president’s alleged use of a certain four-letter word for human waste that many people consider vulgar or obscene to describe certain undeveloped nations.

The word in question is not a newcomer to English. In fact, it’s older than English, dating back to the days when Anglo-Saxons brought their language to England. I rather doubt that those ancient people considered it a “dirty word.” It was likely in daily use as the name for a rather common substance.

Then William the Conqueror showed up, speaking a language more like French than the language of the Anglo-Saxons. Gradually his language and the Anglo-Saxons’ language merged, creating English. The French invaders became the ruling class, which is probably why their words for such things became the “nice” ones, and the Anglo-Saxon words became the naughty ones.

But back to the future, that is, now, when a row erupted over the use of this word.

Some defended the president, on the grounds that other presidents, Lyndon Johnson, for example, have resorted to such language in similar situations. One columnist I read noted that Hillary Clinton has used some pretty salty language herself. That may be, but it doesn’t excuse anybody else for using it.

If you talk to most anyone who has been around for a while, he or she will complain that our language is becoming coarser. In their view, profane, obscene and vulgar words have been creeping into our daily discourse in situations where such words were religiously avoided. Men may have used such language in locker rooms, hunting camps or other all-male situations, but never when ladies were present, for example. I can remember those days, and, for a time, I was under the impression that ladies never used profanity, let alone used language such as the president uttered. Of course, it wasn’t long before I realized that a group of girls could spout R- and X-rated language as well as boys could.

So, I don’t fully agree that our conversations have become coarser by employing profanity or other bad language. Such language was always freely used in certain situations and avoided in others. What has happened is that people are more careless about using bad language, and will drop it into almost any conversation, no matter who is listening. You shouldn’t use such language at all, although I have to admit being guilty on occasion, but if you do, be aware that it might come back to haunt you.

This brings us back to the present, and the president’s words during his meeting with members of Congress. First of all, I object to the use of such language to denigrate people, which was exactly the president’s intention if he used the crude language.

Second, he used it in a situation he should have known would become public, so he should have been aware many people would become aware of it and attack him for using it.

Most important, he should not have used it in the context that will have implications worldwide. The Islamic State is apparently trying to build a base in the very African nations he insulted, and we may require their help in dealing with the extremists. It’s not wise to insult a nation that you may be asking for cooperation against terror someday.

When I was a kid, I was taught that the use of foul language was a sign of ignorance. It demonstrates that the person using it is unable to find more legitimate ways of expressing himself. I think that’s still true, so in closing, I leave you with some words about Niger, one of those African nations the president referred to, one that I believe he knows little about. My daughter-in-law Jennifer Karsner is in her third year working in Niger, after two years of working in another of those nations, Haiti. She has this to say about Niger:

“Niger may be almost the least developed place on earth, but it’s a country with the strongest social ties and community spirit I’ve ever seen. Resilience and strength and solidarity in the face of hardship? That’s Niger. Yes, these countries have problems, but they are already contributing to the value of the world and do not deserve to be dismissed as lesser for being black or brown and poor.”

I would only add that I’m sure the citizens of Niger are as patriotic toward their nation as we are toward ours, but that’s a topic for another day. In the meantime, I’m watching my language more closely — even if I’m only talking to our cats.