Contemplation: The Challenges of Words Obscene but Meaningful

A little over a month ago I wrote a lengthy contemplation on my love and frequent use of swearing and a general defense of such language.  I stand by all that I say in that posting, but, thought that it would be worth touching on the topic again anyways.  While I quite enjoy my fucking right to say fuck whenever I want, not everyone is on the same page of liberal use of profanity.  There is of course a number of reasons for this, but I believe possibly one of the best explanations goes back to a point I believe I have repeatedly brought up previously.  That being that language has meaning, and in that that meaning exists there will inevitably be a degree of ethical contemplation on the use of language, whether it be dropping a few casual “fucks” and “shits,” or if it is a lengthy piece of well constructed rhetoric intended to sway a majority belief.  Language defines our world and constitutes our understanding of things that we encounter.  In this way the change and adjustment of word definition can play a very real impact on how we view and understand the world.

As such I point you to a (obviously a personal favorite site of mine) article by Jesse Sheidlower, the editor-at-large of the OED, about the challenges that dictionaries face when defining and explaining words, like “fuck” that are considered obscene or profane (I was directed to this article by this post on Kottke).  The article is a fascinating look at just how difficult a word like “fuck” can be to the editors of dictionaries, not just because of the obscene nature of the word, but further the multiple levels of meaning and use that it presents. 

And say what you will about how appropriate or not it is, “fuck” is a prolific and versatile word.

I think part of the problem with language, especially as encountered with dictionaries, is the concept of authority.  The purpose of a dictionary is to provide an authoritative definition of words, as they are used in common day to day language.  But language is fluid and the meaning of words is constantly changing and adjusting, and as such dictionaries themselves must constantly be updating and adding new words and definitions.  The authority of a dictionary is tempororary at best, and all and all seems to be a weakly controlling entity, which can easily be disregarded and ignored.  Further, because of the wide variety of dictionaries available, each with their slight differences, we, the speaker, are given the opportunity to pick and choose which definition fits us best in our rhetoric and arguments.  Thus, a defense of the use of the word “fuck” might best be found by turning to Urban Dictionary, whereas a condemnation might find more leverage in Websters (I don’t know if this is actually true or not, it is just a hypothetical).

And what happens to the previous meanings of words?  Do they become irrelevant in lieu of the currently accepted definition or will they always have some degree of relevancy in that they a recorded origin.   Look at how we examine other languages, some not spoken for thousands of years, in the pursuit of finding out where our current words come from.  What will “fuck” mean in another thousand years?

There is an investment in our words and language that we all contribute to.  We choose words everyday and place them into context.  We string them together in a whole slew of sentences used to convey our thoughts, emotions, opinions, ideas, and so on and so forth.  Every day we likely utter an original sentence which has never been uttered before and mayhap will never be uttered again.  Language is variable, it is, again, fluid and changing as we need it to change.

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four the totalitarian government is systematically removing words from language in an effort to control ideas and freedom.  In Ayn Rand’s Anthem the disappearance of the simple pronoun “I” has had significant impacts on the way that people think and act.  Words have meanings.  Words have power.  This may seem like a silly thing to stress, but it truly is an important aspect.  If we do not have a word for something then how do we understand or contemplate it?  When we say that we are “at a loss of words” or that “words fail me” what are we really pointing out.  We are highly reliant on language, not just to communicate, but to quite literally live.

So where is the authority?  Is it in big books called dictionaries or is it something that is vested in collective agreement on meaning and purpose?  Is there actually any authority at all?  Is “fuck” really all that obscene or is it only that some of us choose for it to be obscene?  And what does it really mean? 

It is all context and rhetoric and uncertainty.  Language exists, it has meaning, but it tends to remain slightly elusive.  We can define the words as needs be, but we can not be certain that any single definition will maintain consistency.

Possibly another moment when we can just relinquish and say “Fuck it!, I’ll say what the fuck I want.”

~ by Nathaniel on October 5, 2009.

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