The Most Offensive Word in the English Language
Warning: The following post contains offensive language. In fact, it contains a whole lot of offensive language, because the point of the piece is to examine where people currently stand vis-a-vis the single most offensive word in the English language. So, if you’re easily offended at the sight of such words, or, even if you’re not, please read on…
The other day I was re-watching George Carlin’s famous routine on the words you can’t say on TV: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits, fart, turd, and twat. You see, a few nights earlier, I’d been involved in a dinner party discussion with a bunch of parents on whether it was alright to swear in front of your kids, and, after feeling a bit like an alien (yes, I do swear in front of my kids) I think I needed to hear Carlin talk some foul-mouthed sense.
But this also got me thinking about the power of words. Not that they exist in some sort of perfect Aristotelian state somewhere in the heavens, pre-ordained in categories of good or evil, rather, their impact is determined solely by the human beings who speak them. Furthermore, their resonance changes over time. Insults and exclamations that cut to the core in past generations, sound antiquated to today’s ears.
So, what is the most offensive word in our present day English language? Would we even find it in Ambrose Bierce’s naughty volume “The Devil’s Dictionary”? Of course, the single most important factor in determining whether or not a word or phrase is offensive is the context in which it is spoken.
The word “nigger”, for example (no, we’re not going to dance around it with first letter abbreviations here), remains about as offensive as can be when uttered from a white person’s mouth. But not so for people of color. That word has been reclaimed by the segment of the population it was meant to demean, as well as by other ethnic groups (think of Asian and Hispanic rappers calling each other “nigger”). Again, intention is everything.
For a time, it seemed that white males intended to offend just about everybody else on the planet. With great power, comes the need to rub it in, I guess. So, a slew of derogatory terms was crafted to try to put women and minorities in their proper place: spic, gook, wet back, fag, spear-chucker, kike, cunt, slut, etc., etc.
While it’s easy to understand why direct insults have their desired effect, more curious to me is why a word like “shit”, when exclaimed aloud, should cause such a stir. And why is it that, according to a recent study, productivity is boosted in workplaces where one is allowed to swear openly? Are we so beholden to puritanical norms that swearing actually releases stress?
Even if you’re not particularly bothered by the thought of hearing the word “fucking” spew forth from the mouth of a television anchorman, you probably have a word or two you’d never say in the presence of other people, or that you chastise yourself for even thinking (talk about guilt!). So what’s on your taboo vocabulary list? Let it out, you might just feel better.