Native Writes: Defining the word


My mom always told me to be sure I knew the definition of a word or phrase before I uttered it and I have tried to obey, though today’s discourse leaves me puzzled.

The news over the past week has been filled with controversy over a woman’s use of profanity in the hallowed halls of congress as she stated her intentions toward and feelings about the president.

The first time my mom heard me say the “f-word,” I ran into a cable fence at Adams State and tore a hole in my suntan. I wore nylons with my skorts — shorts with a skirt built over them — due to pasty white legs.

Mom looked at me with a straight face and declared that she had been waiting for me to come out and had occasion to look at the cable. “It didn’t have sex with anything…”

When my sons were teenagers and used the word, I tried the same tactic with them.

“I don’t think I ever saw a textbook have sex…”

“Stale, mom.”

The word’s main meaning is “have sex,” but it has hundreds of other uses, apparently assigned only by the speaker.

Dating back at least to the 1670’s, it first meant “to strike,” the definition changed and the actual “f-word” was outlawed in print in England by the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 and in the U.S. by the Comstock Act, 1873. I first saw it in print while reading “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” which had been “banned in Boston.” I obtained a bootleg copy and mom found it in my pillowcase.

She said she would read it first and declared that the story line was okay, but the use of “profanity” wasn’t. She gave it back, but the joy of reading it was diminished. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a novel by D. H. Lawrence, first published privately in 1928 in Italy and in 1929 in France and Australia. An unexpurgated edition was not published openly until 1960, the year I got my hands on it.

Later, mom found a “True Confessions” magazine in my drawer and asked where I got it. “I found it under grandma’s bed.” The same magazine was openly on the rack at the corner drugstore.

The forbidden word wasn’t in there, but descriptive language presented an adequate picture. One doesn’t need profanity if an adequate vocabulary is available.

Banned by law, the word may have been shunned in print, but it continued in conversation, especially among soldiers during World War I and the generations they spawned.

Now, almost everyone uses the word. It’s used as a noun, verb, adverb, adjective and expletive. One of the most common words in English — it’s also one of the most offensive.

An old-fashioned attitude toward language is probably why people are gasping, gagging and pulling out their hair over a newly elected congresswoman’s use of profanity to define her intentions toward the president.

He has used those words and worse on many occasions and it has been shrugged off. Self-defined as “locker room talk,” it has continued. Criticism has not changed him.

This isn’t the first time I saw a double standard applied to men and women.

A man’s tongue can lick the gutter, but a woman’s language should be linguistically pure, clean and dignified.

Really?

I must confess I am startled when I hear a woman cuss like a stevedore. I try not to use profanity, but have done so from time to time when my emotions ran high.

Why the double standard?

I ask myself this question as I ponder the congresswoman’s outburst. Men have spoken like that for years and it has generally been ignored.

While I won’t use that sort of language in a public place, I will defend another woman’s right to use it.

But if she does, she’d better be ready to define it.

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