What's In A Word? A Little...

My High School English Teacher admonished a boy in the class for using gutter language. "You speak these words with the same tongue that helps you to masticate your food," she said. "Using that kind of language is just a lazy excuse for not being able to come up with a more creative way to get your meaning across."

Later I came to realize the teacher was right about one thing. Writers and speakers can get lazy, but today there are no "bad" words in my toolbox. Words don't have meaning, people do. There is however the inappropriate use of certain words in a given context. This concept is not an easy one to teach.

Sean's teacher assigns her students a new word each week. Her first grade students are instructed to dissect the word and use the letters to create new words. The word for the week was "hundreds". Sean constructed the following words: sure, dues, send, under, shred, shreds, sunder, red, ruder, Ned, under, rude, dude, nerd and sun.

He proceeded to write his discoveries on a paper to be handed in to the teacher the following day. Sean's mother checked the list. She pointed out that although Sean had discovered the word rude, he failed to include in the list. "You didn't put down rude." She pointed to the paper.

Sean answered, "I don't want to". He had tears in his eyes as he looked longingly at his younger siblings who were watching "The Discovery Channel". They didn't have to do homework.

"Why not use rude, it's a perfectly good word. It's in the dictionary." His mother insisted.

Sean looked first at the television, and then at his feet. "I just don't want to. It's not nice."

Sean's mother took the opportunity, "the teachable moment" as she explained to her son, "It's just a word, Sean. There aren't any bad words, there are just bad ways to use them."

Sean's mom knew she had met her match when Sean responded, "Then how come you wouldn't let me put down shit on the list for last week's word?"

Her come back to Sean's gotcha was right on target. "Because it's rude, Sean. It's rude to write down shit because if your teacher calls on you to read your list out loud, saying shit will get the other kids to laughing and put your teacher on the spot. But it's not rude to say rude. It's rude to be rude.

Just as hammers can be used to drive nails or break windows, words are simply tools. People decide how to use them. People use words to be polite, to put down, to have power over others, to conform, to deceive, to be honest, to convince, to create meanings, to destroy opposition, to incite riots, to calm the crowds, to comfort, to distort, to clarify, and to confuse. Words are not the enemy.

—M. LaCourt

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