Sunday, November 15, 2020

Radioactive Words

There are always radioactive words in any society.  Some are mostly forbidden, some are completely forbidden, some are conditionally forbidden, and some are secretly encouraged, so that people can show what brave rebels they are. At the moment the n-word is both conditionally forbidden, in that black people can say it, but otherwise absolutely forbidden, in that no others can say it under any circumstances.  There is protest over this, that the rules have gone entirely outside any sense of reason, in that it cannot be quoted in a context and cannot be uttered even to condemn it.  This is why I use the word radioactive, rather than sticking with the more usual term forbidden. One cannot even approach the word or handle it in any way unless one has the proper protections. If this seems unreasonable, remember that it was ever thus.  Of course it's unreasonable.  So what? Live with the unreasonableness, because that is what language does, everywhere, at all times.

Those whose objections are unreasonable, who declare we cannot even quote from Huckleberry Finn, however important the book was in improving the way the culture thought about black people, might have bad reasons for the insistence.  It may indicate an imbalance in them that suggests they will always be miserable unless they have a change of attitude. Yet this is not new. They are responding emotively that if we do not follow the rule, it is evidence that we just don't understand how serious this is.  If we protest that we indeed do, they will shake their heads.  If you really understood, you would not do this. They are always among us, and keeping some words radioactive might be good for us, however ridiculous each individual case might be.

There is something similar from my childhood, and many years previous. Many people refused to use Christ's name as an exclamation, and considered any reference to God intending to damn anyone as not only impolite and discouraged, but unsafe. Even euphemisms were discouraged. As evidence of this, I will not, even now, put the word "damn" directly after the word "God," even in the context of quoting or deploring the phrase. Preachers would use the words "damn," "damned," "damnation," and talk about how God would indeed damn some people, but they would always sneak some words in between, as I did there. It's automatic, and I see no need to change it.The commandments were very strict about using the Lord's name in vain, and that seemed to be one of the agreed-upon meanings.  One did not put the words together because it had the sense of being a curse on someone, a spiritual burden that was real and would have to be attended to eventually. That rational discussion might undermine this thought was irrelevant.  Why take the risk? The phrase was radioactive.  It was not prohibited because it was filthy or base or showed poor breeding or manners, but because there was something dangerous about it.

That started changing over a century ago, and I think few of us would still regard the phrase as absolutely radioactive. I do, but I imagine that's rare and becoming rarer.

The Indo-Europeans would not say the name of the bear, referring to the animal as "the brown one," or "the honey eater." Honey was *medhu, from which we get our word mead and the Russian word for bear, medved. The other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam, also have serious rules about making the name of God radioactive, not to be handled in any way. Even now Jews will use a hyphen and write G-d, though even Orthodox scholars will dismiss this as unnecessary. Sometimes it is good to follow at a distance and not touch some object, or to take off our shoes because we are on holy ground, even if we have mistakenly picked the wrong object or the wrong ground.

1 comment:

Tom Bridgeland said...

I came to this idea late, maybe in my 30s. I found myself shocked at myself for saying God damn something, and thought do I really want that particular thing damned. I decided that what I really wanted was for God to bless whatever was making me angry, so started saying God bless it.

My sister prays for her lawnmower, and I suppose other devices in her life, that it continues to function well.