Why Are Bad Words Bad?

@#$%!

We are all familiar with swear words. Whether they are taught to us by an older sibling, or a particularly mischievous kid at the playground, or you happen to overhear adults swearing, these words often fascinate us as children.

It makes sense. Children, particularly very young children, are among the most powerless members of society. They have to be fed, clothed, taken everywhere, they don’t have or make money. And yet, just by speaking a particular set of words, they can elicit a reaction from adults all around.

These words also hold some fascination, even for adults. You may or may not swear yourself, but cursing is everywhere. Certain words are bleeped on broadcast TV, sometimes with humorous effects. For example, late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel has a recurring segment called “This Week in Unnecessary Censorship“. In it, non-swear words are bleeped, with the intended effect to make seemingly innocuous speech sound dirty.

But what is it about these words that makes them bad?

$#*!

To help examine this question, let’s look at the word shit. What makes this word bad? What are the qualities that make it so offensive that it can’t be spoken in polite conversation?

Certainly it isn’t the action itself. We are all familiar with going to the bathroom — it is among those things that everybody does. There is even a children’s book called “Everybody Poops”. The concept of pooping is something that is explained to every child in every language and in every culture. It has to be, because, well, everybody poops.

So there must be a difference between the word poop and the word shit. They can’t simply be synonyms, or else why would you be able to say “poop” on broadcast TV and not be bleeped, but “shit” is censored every time?

What is the difference? Is it the context in which it is used? Is it simply that everyone agrees that it is a bad word? Would it be possible to just agree that a bad word is no longer a bad word? Why are bad words bad?

Related questions: How does your vocabulary influence how you think? Where do shared ideas exist? What do we have in common? What words have the most power?

How Can We Encourage Meaningful Conversation?

Sometimes it seems like conversation is a dying art.

We don’t talk much anymore. In-depth discussions have been replaced with small talk. Long, rambling phone calls are now five second Vine videos. A ten page, hand-written letter is now a text message.

Why is this?

Generally, there are many reasons for this change. Technology, in the form of smart phones and social media, encourages brevity. We are warned to avoid controversial topics as a way of keeping the peace. In addition, an entire generation of young adults have grown up online, where tone of voice and body language are non-existent.

As a result, we grow ever more isolated from those around us. People are not confronted with differing opinions. We don’t often talk to people with opposing views, and when we do it devolves to a shouting match. Violence is increasingly more common. Consequently, entire communities are dismissed and ignored.

Is it all bad?

And yet, we still crave conversation. We want to be intellectually stimulated. Ted Talks, for example, are wildly popular, and can be thought of as the first half of a conversation. The vlogbrothers, Hank and John Green, are YouTube celebrities based on their ongoing weekly video chats. So the desire exists in each of us for communication of ideas, and the act of sharing them with our friends and acquaintances.

So how can we revive the art of conversation? How do we overcome our dependency on the endless Facebook newsfeed scroll, and engage each other in an actual dialogue? Can we recapture the give and take, the challenge of ideas, the talk for sake of the talk? In short, to be exposed to new ideas and new points of view?

How can we encourage meaningful conversation?

Related questions: What do we have in common? How can we encourage debate? Are we too busy? How can we become better listeners? What do you get out of social media?