furnishing a relief denied even to prayer


I pretty much stepped in it, as it were, with yesterday’s entry; what began as an exercise in exorcising demons dealt us by a shitty Jesuit school in Omaha turned into a donnybrook over the kind of language we can use as insults. As I said in the comments, the responsibility rests with me, as I was the one who pasted GFWD’s email into the entry without his explicit permission. He has his own vernacular on his private email list, and I have mine, and I opened him up to criticism for words literally cut and pasted out of its original context.

And yes, I used the word “literally” correctly. I checked my archives and I literally stopped using that word around 2005, when it became so abused that it no longer scanned normally.

But the bigger point here remains elusively compelling. As I told the essential Tammy O., I’m forever caught in the battle between “words mean things!” and “I wanna say what I fucking well want!” Further, it always seems to split down gender lines, as dudes hate being told what not to say, and women fundamentally understand the need for some words to go away.

It’s pretty easy to see the gender difference: straight guys have always loved words that denigrate women and gays. And let me be clear, I try not to be one of them. I work very hard at being a decent fellow. I strive to be sensitive, gender-neutral, and equal-minded, and then I see this on the internet:


…and I laugh so hard I spurt tea out of my nose. I think because it looks like our old dog Kije. Or because I’ve got traces of homophobia lodged in my spine like old viruses. Or maybe because it’s completely nonsensically awesome.

But part of it is the limitation of the English language. Let’s look at one word that is problematic: GAY. As I was growing up, the word morphed from “socially-awkward twit who acts effeminate” to “socially-awkward twit” to “an idea or thing that is enough off-the-mark to induce slight cringing.”

To wit: “Do you think this T-shirt is, I dunno, kinda gay?”


To date, no word has approached synonym to erase “gay” from the lexicon. The word “twee” is close, but even the word “twee” can be kind of gay. And yet you really can’t use the word “gay” for all the obvious reasons. “Fag” has its own history (as any perusal of the Louis CK oeuvre will demonstrate) but even “South Park” can’t fully exonerate it.

The words for women are a bit more problematic, because they fly out of our mouths so quickly. Most of the time, we have no idea we’ve even said them. All women who we consider pushy, dominant, domineering, sly, untrustworthy, mean, or manipulative get the immediate treatment: cunt whore slut nag cooze harpy bitch.

Not to mention that we diminutize them by calling them “girls” long past childhood, usually until the men chasing them no longer find them hot. Tell me you can’t read this Tina Fey quote and not find it 97% true:

“I know older men in comedy who can barely feed and clean themselves, and they still work. The women, though, they’re all ‘crazy.’ I have a suspicion — and hear me out, because this is a rough one — that the definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.”

And yet. AND YET…

Why can’t we call an asshole on a rival basketball team a “little punk bitch”? What if everyone knew what we meant? We’re not the bad guys. What if… in our parlance, “bitches” doesn’t mean “women” or “women-like” or “homosexual” or “deserving of scorn the way women are”… it just means “asshole”, devoid of any larger conspiracy.

What if we truly don’t believe that words like that contribute to how people treat women? What if we believe the word “fag” no longer applies to homosexuals, regardless of origin?

As for me, personally, I don’t know. I used to fight for the words I wanted to use, but time (and an allergy to cliché) has mellowed that end of my lexicon. I believe that all things being equal, the ruling always goes to the more aggrieved party. And being a straight white dude, that sure as hell isn’t me. But I have to admit, I occasionally yearn for the old words. I really miss telling my sister Michele than her “Bread, Not Bombs” T-shirt was totally fucking gay.

0 thoughts on “furnishing a relief denied even to prayer

  1. killian

    Cake: Eating vs. Having. We all have our cake. Yours is words. But not all of us have to cop to ours on such a public forum. Thank you.

  2. Carey

    If you mean asshole, say asshole.
    How do you explain these words to Lucy if she hears them? I’m in that spot almost daily and it isn’t easy.

  3. Sean

    You are actually the last, the very very last person, I would expect to even bring up this horrible justification. You and I have only a couple of things going for us, and one of them is that we’re florid and articulate. God knows, we didn’t find ourselves procreating with difficult to attain women for our D+ genetic history, it’s because we know how to say things that lazier people don’t know how to say.
    Make a decision, world. If you’ve heard a phrase before, ever, then find a new one. Have you ever heard the words “punk bitch” used together? Yes, yes a thousand times. And who uses them? Oiled and lightly muscled gentlemen wearing perhaps too much jewelry, eye-rolling doods with their hats on backwards and sad drunks in the bleachers of a Knicks game.
    It is our responsibility to create the new vernacular. Phrases like “punk bitch” are like cobwebs left in doorways – ancient, useless, easy to walk in to and sticky.
    When someone says “if I could do that, I’d never leave the house…” don’t you want to say, “yes, yes. I know. I know, I heard that joke in 1991, and it was funny, but then every one of you mooks has been repeating it forever. I supposed you also have a rhyme about a fellow from Nantucket…”

  4. Jackie

    It’s a weird area. My15 year old son came into the room just now whole I was bitching because Woot is having a Woot-off and they are once again selling the unsalable Santana hats. He looked and said “no one would buy them, Mom, they are way too gay”. My partner looked and said “yep only gays would wear those” and I muttered “gay truckers, maybe”.
    Everyone involved in that conversation was gay but I think all of us would be comfortable with ANYONE having that conversation. So, I don’t know how to tell you the rules because I don’t understand them.
    Here’s another story instead of an explanation. My son is an out gay kid. He came out in fifth grade so by middle school most of his friends were comfortable. One day a kid who didn’t know him came up and called him a fag. One of his friends walked up to the kid and said “you know, he really is gay”. The other kid came back and I said “I am so sorry, dude. I never would have called you that if I knew”.
    So, I think the words are getting disconnected right in front of us.

  5. Deb

    Hear, hear, Sean, well-said. It’s exactly what I tell my 5-year-old when he uses 5-year-old curse-words (“stupid”, “jerk”) or asks what “ass” or “shit” means. I tell him those words are boring and lazy, and people who say them aren’t creative enough to describe the situation better, and then we talk about how he could say what he wants in a nicer, more interesting way.
    I’m not particularly, personally offended by a lot of words (they are just words), but they do help inform my opinion of the person who uses them. You have a choice in what you say and how you say it.

  6. Ehren

    The thing is, the line keeps moving. That’s both progress (we’re getting closer to equality all the time) and frustrating (people feel like they have to expend effort to keep up with changing mores.)
    But phrases like the horrifying “nigger-rig” or “he jewed me out of $5” used to be the things that people stood up against. I think we’re all probably pretty glad that these words aren’t really said any longer in polite society.
    “Gay” and “bitch” are just the next words to cycle out, and our kids will grow up finding them just as offensive as we find those earlier words.
    “Cunt,” “dick” and “asshole” to mean jerk are all just good old-fashioned human waste/body humor profanity. Calling someone a “pussy” is different, because you’re making a gender slur.
    I think that in general if we’re offending people with our speech, we should feel the same way we do when we accidentally step on someone’s toes — we should feel a bit mortified and try to avoid it in the future. It’s not that you’re a bad person, but you need to realize that you can’t just step wherever you want once you know there are toes over there.

  7. Ian

    Sean (and Deb) – I disagree. If we’re to take profanity and epithets at face value for a second, the whole point of them is to use them as emotional shorthand without too much dithering. “Fuck” is a cliché, but such a wonderful one. There are certain times when “punk ass bitch” is the only phrase that will come out, and trying to think of a new one defeats the purpose.
    This is above and beyond the argument of whether it’s sexist or demeaning. Inventing a new phrase takes time for dreaming it up, and then auditioning it out loud, and by then, you’ve missed your swearing window. That doesn’t stop me from doing it on the blog, but then again, I’ve been accused of being overly twee with my verbiage.
    Besides, Sean, you just denigrated closeted muscle men, sarcastic hipsters, and Knick fans!

  8. Bud

    This is a very worthwhile, thought-provoking discussion; thanks to Tammy, Ian and Greg for getting it started.
    It’s too bad we can’t just express what we feel accurately. To wit: the behavior of Creighton’s players was cowardly and brutish. I think that’s accurate. Maybe it’s nit-picking, but I doubt they always behave that way, so even to say they _are_ cowardly brutes is probably inaccurate.
    But either of those expressions sounds weak because humans have a need for language novelty. Which makes sense. As Sean said, use the right (accurate, funny, offensive) word sparingly, and it has some punch, conveys something close to what it’s trying to represent. But say it too much and it becomes stale and meaningless.
    Words like “gay” or “bitch” still have some punch, especially when applied to someone who presumably would not want to be thought of that way. It’s easy to forget Tammy’s point, that these words can hurt innocent people. She’s right that we should find other ways to express what we’re groping for.
    I have an idea: how about we say those players behaved like complete ‘creightons’ and their behavior was totally ‘creigh’? Seems fair enough, doesn’t it? :)
    Anyway, fuck the fucking fuckers. We’ll find a way to win with Stillman White and Justin Watts. GO HEELS!

  9. Moe

    For some reason this is something that’s been on my mind a lot recently. Sometimes those words express an emotion that’s not conveyed as precisely as others would. And it takes away something if they don’t have their full gravity when you’re feeling it. Unfortunately the words I’m looking for, I find as of late, tend to be slurs. (I wonder if that has to do with my associations and time spent listening to radio geared towards men (who appear to be lesser educated). If that were true, it’s that group(s) that is/are directing language usage (teens, lesser educated, for example). I think about slang and how it flows through subcultures and the history of a word’s usage. It appears (correct me if I’m wrong Daphne Athas) that words are trendy and eventually lose their power. I’m a female who doesn’t have a problem with the word bitch. It’s descriptive. I don’t feel as comfortable using “gay” because I feel like it’s a slur – but often know most don’t intend it that way. The interesting thing is, the power seems to be generated from the fact that it has a history as a slur. It doesn’t seem actually based, when a word like “gay” is evolving like it is now, in hatred as much as it is transitioning into expressivity (maybe by our youth). ;) I’m so lame.

  10. Deb

    I feel like there’s plenty of room for profanity (despite the fact that I didn’t swear until I got to college (eyes, go ahead and roll) and still got plenty angry), and there’s enough profanity to go around without picking the ones that make people feel bad. Back to boring and lazy, some of my favorite profanity is that of the creative variety. And we’re not talking about hitting your hand with a hammer…in this case it was the written word, where spontaneity was not necessary. I’m not arguing so much for the censorship as I am for the implications of the usage.

  11. Annie

    I am really astounded/interested. Why? I think because all the responses yesterday and today are so alive with currency, and I am surprised to discover the imaginary arbiter in my mind that tells me “Of *course* we know what’s meant by whom in what context!” (i.e. Greg didn’t *mean* ‘punk-ass-bitch’ that way!) And then I realize that–regardless of what *my* arbiter thinks (she’s rather like a self-contained Siri–she’s got the scoop–she knows what’s up)–regardless of what that august person all-knowingly sees, that this itself is the issue: The meaning of language is measured by one’s own eye, or ear.
    “Retarded” as a pejorative adjective describing fundamental human idiocy has long been exiled from my tongue. People occasionally say it front of me–depending on the context, I might state openly that I am not cool with the word used this way. And as I write this paragraph, I realize that the word “idiot” could be considered an equivalent insult.
    “Cunt” is a word I have never put to use myself, but my feelings about it have changed over the years, and the biggest shift took place when I was visiting crazy hoop friends in England, where they use it constantly and to hilarious effect. While reading Greg’s post, however, I found myself appreciating the fact that he nixed one pondered usage, showing sensitivity to what could have been (for me) a line-crossing moment. (i.e. I laugh my ass off when my English friends use the word, but it would have felt weird to me to ‘hear’ it in that context, and Greg felt that somehow and took it into account.) And then, confusingly, I also feel some sense–as a woman–of: “God damn it, if *I* want to say ‘cunt,’ I damn sure will!”
    Obviously I would never and will never feel this way about the n-word. And I’m very, very partial to hip-hop and rap music, which regularly exposes me to an employment of the same word which is singularly expressively satisfying, in a way no other word could ever be.
    It strikes me that as Jackie gamely and open-mindedly described her family’s interaction over the word “gay,” she easily (and without comment) used the word “bitching” to indicate complaining.
    I have used the words “punk-ass” and “bitch” but never together. Together they can have (to me) a somewhat sinister ring. But to be candid: I did notice Greg’s use of the epithet, and then decided it fit into this context in a way that made sense to me. However, I can feel how Tammy feels, also. I think the fact that I know Greg personally made the crucial difference.
    And in fact, this might be the case, period: For those whom we know, face to face, (including, notably, ourselves) we can and do shift boundaries around speech and language, what words can and cannot be used in a given context. And we see that the rapid context shift (personal email to blog, blog to Carolina fan page, Carolina fan page to blog commentary)–changed everything.

  12. Tammy O.

    I’m late on this, but since I incited this mess I felt I should weigh in.
    So, I’ve been an academic, an activist, a writer, and a teacher/mentor and now part of my business is managing online communities where thousands of teens comment every day. I’ve done the reclaiming language thing, I’ve studied it, I understand wordplay and the difference between the sign and the signified. I’ve written for Bitch magazine for ten years b/c it’s the best feminist pop culture mag out there even though I have a complicated relationship to the name and I feel it’s always limited the publication (although the comment trolls on the previous post reinforce to me why the name is actually appropriate, because whenever I talk about gender/language/feminist issues, someone still always calls me a bitch).
    We live in a world in which a teenager can call another teenager a “fag” or something “gay” and not mean it as a homophobic slur — and be apologetic when called out for doing so. But we also live in a world where twenty teenagers used the word “fag” online in a comment thread over the weekend and meant it precisely as a homophobic slur. We live in a world where sports, in particular, is a hostile culture. Racism, sexism, and homophobia still exist, and I’m just not going to use words that I think might inadvertently contribute to a kid growing up feeling bad about himself or herself. And that includes the word “retarded,” which seems ubiquitously used among friends and family who would otherwise refrain from saying offensive things. (It’s so, so icky.) I don’t think we need to mourn the loss of offensive words, and I don’t think we need to wring our hands about political correctness. I just think we need to be mindful.
    The boys throw stones in jest, yo, but the frogs die in earnest. So I try not to throw the stones.

  13. Moe

    I’m also white, so from the outside I think it’s unfortunate that people of color use degrading term(s) to address each other. I’m not interested in that whites “aren’t allowed” to use it, but why they would choose to use it. Especially because these terms were designed out of hate by (most likely) whites.
    –spent a whole paragraph not using it! :)


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