Somewhere in the back of my mind I’ve had a notion to research and write a book on the history of “bad words.” Being raised Evangelical, I had a preternatural fear of saying something that might damn me to Hell, and even today working in Manhattan, I still flinch when I hear f-bombs falling all around me. Still, the concept of “bad words,” although almost universal, is very odd. We all know the tired jokes of a particularly offensive word in one language being common in another, with an entirely different denotation leading to embarrassing situations. No set of sounds, inherently, means anything bad. Surely it is the intention behind such outbursts that lead to accusations of profanity or blasphemy. I wonder how it got started. The Bible says nothing about bad words—in fact it contains a few—but it does warn against thoughtless curses. That’s because ancient people believed curses really worked.
As I stepped out in the dark to pick up the paper this morning I was curious, then, when a front page story announced, “At school, cursing’s out—for girls only.” The school in question turns out to be Queen of Peach High School in North Arlington, New Jersey. According to Leslie Brody the girls at the school were asked to take a no cursing pledge yesterday, while the boys weren’t. The real story here, however, is not my curiosity about “bad words,” but an insidious sexism. One of the teachers is quoted as saying “We want ladies to act like ladies.” And, of course, what lady would ever have anything to cuss about? Being paid lower wages than a man for the same work? Being blocked out of clergy positions in some churches? Being regularly maligned as “the weaker sex” who, like Eve, bear the guilt of bringing sin into the world? If anything, it seems to me, women have more cause to swear than men.
Just when I’ve been lulled into thinking we’re making strides toward equality, such stories dash the ice water of reality into my face. Who decided that it is appropriate for gentlemen to cuss? Can they just not help it? Are the same words any more offensive for slipping past feminine lips than masculine ones? I’m still not convinced about the entire bad word concept. As someone who smiths words every day, indeed, whose living depends on words, I find all words have their uses. It’s really a matter of context. And if I were a girl being told not to say what boys can say, I think I might have some choice words to add to that conversation.