Sunday, December 23, 2007

It's only words...

In the past few months, I've developed an addiction for Scrabulous, which is an online version of Scrabble played via Facebook. I have been a fan of word games of various sorts since my mother taught me Scrabble shortly after her divorce as a way to fill the newly empty evenings.

One thing that took me by surprise was the passionate battle raging on Facebook between those who feel that profanities should be disallowed and those who resist such a move. I guess, having grown up playing word games, I have been able to distinguish between the concept of words per se and that of words for communication.

If a word is in the agreed dictionary for a game of Scrabble, it is allowed on the board during the game. This includes words I would only use under extreme duress and words I would never use at all. My culture, my faith, my (for want of a better term) station in life, my backgound, my upbringing, my age and even my gender have an influence over the words I will use to express myself, but I cannot deny that they are real words.

Time and fashion render some words profane that used to be an integral part of the language. In certain dialects, words will be considered rude that in other dialects don't even warrant a raised eyebrow. Some groups apply euphemistic nicknames to genetalia, while others simply opt for their proper names. Americans freshen up in the bathroom (which often doesn't contain a bath at all), while in the UK we go to the loo for a wee. The American term for one's rear is the same as the nickname given to female genitalia in the UK, while the term used for one's rear in the UK means a tramp or hobo in the US. Xhosa speakers in South Africa, when speaking English tend to use the term f***-all freely in all situations, blissfully unaware that it offends native English speakers. When these cultures bump up against each other, we have a choice: we either take offence or we recognise that words are weighted differently. Where do we draw the profanity line?

We also have the ability to adapt our language to our circumstance. I don't often refer to behaviourist pedagogies at home with my children. Many people I know who turn the air blue at work, utter nothing stronger than "flipping" around their children.

As a student of English, I have studied texts containing some very explicit language. This doesn't mean I consider it appropriate for every day use. I encouraged my children to read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, even though I wouldn't tolerate for a moment their use of some of the language it contains.

If I were writing a play or a narrative, I might put words into the mouths of one of my characters that I wouldn't dream of using myself, simply because the character isn't me, and doesn't speak like me (I had this argument with one of my sons' teachers years ago, when she objected to the use of the word "yuck!" in the dialogue of a piece of creative writing).

And if I'm playing Scrabble/Scrabulous and trying to win, I'd be hard pressed to turn down the opportunity to play the f-word on a triple word score. After all, that would net me a minimum of 39 points... and it's in the dictionary.

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