This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, November 28, 1990

November 28, 1990 - Bad language

Lately my three year old daughter, Maddy, has demonstrated the most remarkable ability to mimic other people's speech. Who really remembers learning to talk? So I find it fascinating to listen to her.

But suddenly she seems to know some, uh, bad words. Probably from the TV. Possibly her mother.

At any rate, I've been wondering. What makes a bad word bad? We can list the words - at least I can. But to many people it isn't so clear what's wrong with them (the words, I mean, not the people). So I've been doing a little reading about the subject. (I recommend "The Story of English" by Robert McCrum, and "The Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way," by Bill Bryson.)

Most bad words are short, consisting of one syllable and often only four letters. They tend to refer to the most basic human activities - things everyone does (or wants to do) but some find offensive to do (or discuss) in public. For some reason, there are no bad words for two of my favorite and equally basic functions, sleeping and eating. That's strange, since sleeping in public is almost always rude and can be very offensive. My father's snoring, for instance, was so loud it interfered with our television reception. As for eating, the way Maddy treats certain foods is a topic fit only for the forewarned, unfastidious or extremely strong of stomach.

But linguistically speaking, most of our bad words are perfectly acceptable and once quite common Anglo-Saxon terms. The objections of polite society are not based so much upon the meaning of the words as on their time and place of origin.

In 1066, the Normans (a French tribe) seized the English throne. This had many effects on English history, but particularly on the language.

People have the unappetizing but universal tendency to try to butter up their betters. Because the court spoke French, a Romance or Latin-based language, good old Anglo-Saxon came to be seen as "rough," associated with the defeated, the low-lifes, the peasantry. So some Englishmen, in an attempt to curry favor, adopted more "cultured" (meaning French) phrasing.

The fundamental characteristic of Romance languages is that if one syllable is good, two are better. Thus the terse Anglo-Saxon word for voiding the bowels, for example, became the more socially correct "defecation" - a clear case of brown-nosing.

It's hard to explain why people who didn't want to talk about something used words that took more time to get through, which meant that they had to talk about it longer. The answer, of course, is that time and delicate sensibilities were not really the issues. Vocabulary was a political choice and a socioeconomic claim.

In much the same way as the motto or slogan of a losing football team becomes an embarrassment to its home town, whole chunks of the Anglo-Saxon oral heritage were discredited, abandoned, and suppressed by the English-speaking people. But since short words tend to be more forceful than long words, the linguistic remnants we call "bad language" persist in our tongue.

In short, bad language, or "sub-standard" speech, is often little more than the practice of a cultural minority. Since children, too, are minorities, I have decided to be understanding about my daughter's linguistic experiments.

But I'm also going to watch what I say.

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