Mikitish: What makes our words so bad?

As the Delta Kappa Epsilon controversy overtook the campus and the pages of the News last week, I (at the expense, perhaps, of sounding crass) found myself more interested in the debates over the language employed in the News response than in the original issue. This is not to say that the linguistic interest is more legitimate, much less more salient. However, this controversy-within-a-controversy, for whose sake (to use a terrible academic phrase) “much ink has been spilled,” points to a much larger issue — larger even than politically correct, or in this case politically incorrect, language. The issue which we must confront is what makes a word “bad.”

I choose this very general term very purposefully. After all, let’s face it — there are lots of “bad words,” and they’re bad for different reasons and, putatively, in different situations. The different uses of the “N-word” constitute perhaps the most obvious example, but the “F-word” is even more illustrative. In some social situations its use as a general intensifier is seemingly acceptable. In fact, most of its uses — really, all those save its original, sexual one — could probably slip into informal peer-to-peer conversations without raising many eyebrows. Consider: A co-worker complaining about how he “f–ked up his car last night” would hardly be perturbing; however, a co-worker talking about how he “f–ked a girl last night” would be a little surprising.

But why? After all, as I said, the sexual meaning is the original one! It’s a good Germanic word (compare Dutch “fokken,” “to breed,” Swedish “fokka,” “to thrust, to have sex”)!

Before attempting any conclusions, let’s look at another, different kind of example, this time a political one. Though “oriental” was (and still is, in some contexts) a staple of academic language for 200 or more years, it has recently become, in some circles at least, taboo, especially as applied to people or peoples. Many believe that this term unfairly lumps the diverse cultures of East Asia (or, in some cases, all of Asia) into an imaginary one. Given the word’s popular usage only 10 or 20 years ago (under which Japanese, Korean and Chinese restaurants could all be called “oriental” places), this disdain is perhaps understandable. But what is the literal (which is, in many ways, current) meaning of “oriental”?

“Oriental” comes from the Latin adjective “orientalis,” derived in turn from the noun “oriens,” which itself is present participle of the verb “orior.” The verb is the Latin reflex of an old Indo-European word for “to rise.” The participle “oriens,” “the rising one,” came to mean “the morning sun.” The association with the East is obvious, thus the adjective “orientalis” — “eastern.”

It seems, then, at first sight, that its use to make generalizations about the East, whether East Asia or all Asia, is just as fair as the use of “the West” which is so common in both (and I hate to put it this way) Western and Eastern discourse.

But there is the rub. Rarely indeed does the term “Westerner” or “the West” carry some sort of racial judgment, at least in our cultural sphere. To be fair, the term “oriental,” at least in the modern academic usage, is not often consciously employed with racial intentions either. But do the exceptional cases — or the historical cases — make all the difference?

The rule of thumb for understanding language, introduced in other columns and other contexts, is that it must be understood by living usage and living perceptions. What’s “wrong” — or, in this case, “bad” — can’t really be determined by etymology, but only by the way the words are used or not used, accepted or not accepted. This is the point of my first “f–king” example. Even though the etymology might suggest that one venerable usage is perfectly appropriate, the living language tells us otherwise. However, in the second example, figuring out how words are used is exactly the problem. One person’s “oriental cultures” are another person’s racial slurs. Is the word always offensive? Is it offensive when used by some people, or in some (say, nonacademic) contexts? In this sense, the debate is inherently a prescriptive one. Those who oppose “politically incorrect” language are not reacting to perceptions so much as they are attempting to create them. Because words such as “oriental” have histories of usage and certain connotations which are connected with cultural imperialism and racial stereotypes, they are condemned, by some, as wrong (would it be unfair to say morally wrong?) to use in any context. The word is divorced from its usage per se and connected instead with its history of usage. The contrary arguments (etymological, in this case) assess the word instead by its origin, which is an equally “dead” approach to language. In other words, though the conclusions are different, the underlying assumptions and, to a large degree, methodology are quite the same. So what is the average speaker to do?

Simple: Keep speaking. The words will sort themselves out, but only as we the speakers use — or choose not to use — them. Even in these contests of ideology versus etymology, the will of the people will eventually trump even the most radical advocate or most stodgy philologist.

J. Max Mikitish is a sophomore in Silliman College.


  • silliwin01

    You use too many exclamation points, honestly.

  • The Anti-Yale

    The “f-word” has become a prefix and a suffix. It no longer intensifies anything.

    And the Occident?

    Cultural Imperialism?
    Toyota, Hyundai, Kia; Sony, Toshiba, Yamaha?

    **Materialism is the new Egalitarianism.**

  • Summer

    > After all, as I said, the sexual meaning is the original one

    Since at least the time of Shakespeare, it was offensive (which is why Shakespeare alludes to it rather than uses it directly in his work). In any modern context, it is still offensive; that offensiveness is tied closely to its sexual nature. Remove the sexual nature from the word and it becomes less potent. It’s not really all that complicated.

  • Undergrad

    Another interesting example (of the “oriental” type) is upcoming referendum in Rhode Island to drop “and Providence Plantations” from its official name. When the state was originally created, “Plantation” simply referred to a farm or a colony, but over the centuries it has acquired a close association with slavery and many think the name is racially insensitive. So which do we go by? Etymology or common use? One might say you can’t have it both ways–decrying “histrionics” because of its etymology relating to the uterus, despite de-sexed common use, and then decrying “plantations” because of its common use, despite its benign etymology. Or maybe we should reject this dichotomy and reject words if either the common use *or* the etymology is offensive.

  • penny_lane


    Undergrad- No one (with half a brain) decried the word “histrionics” because of its etymology, especially since its etymology has nothing to do with the uterus. People objected to it because of the definition and connotations of the word itself–which is a far less moot argument, don’t you think?

  • Yale12

    > The “f-word” has become a prefix and a
    > suffix. It no longer intensifies
    > anything. And the Occident? Cultural
    > Imperialism? Toyota, Hyundai, Kia;
    > Sony, Toshiba, Yamaha? Materialism is
    > the new Egalitarianism.

    The Anti-Yale, what in God’s name are you talking about and why do you insist on posting your nonsensical drivel here? Seriously, could you pretend you went to Harvard and go ramble on their comment pages once and a while, especially because most of the stuff you write has absolutely nothing to do with any of the articles?

  • The Anti-Yale

    Yale 12:

    Why on earth do you allow something to irritate you which means nothing to you?
    Seems masochistic.

    Ignore it.

    Or is it control which is really your issue?