On Insults and Etymology

November 23, 2008    By: Jacob J @ 10:52 am   Category: Life,Mormon Culture/Practices

This thread is cracking me up.

I just gave the “etymology is not meaning” speech to one of my varsity scouts a couple of weeks ago, but apparently it could use wider circulation. One of the scouts was pulling the familiar line that goes something like: “don’t use that word, do you know what the word “dork” really means?”

Nearly every insult we have traces back to something vulgar. But, pretty much no one today who uses “jerk” or “dork” or “putz” (or even “jerkwad”) has in mind the vulgar origins. Words take on new meaning based on their usage and these are just general purpose insult words in today’s usage.

The mistake made by my varsity scout has a fancy name. It is called the etymological fallacy. If you look for it you will see it pretty regularly. Sometimes you’ll hear someone say that people should not call us “mormons” because that was originally an insult.

It is one thing to be naive about the connotations of a word. For example, when I was about 10 or 11 I saw at the store what I thought was a hilarious license plate frame which said on the top “be kind to trees” and on the bottom “eat beavers.” Picturing trees and beavers as mortal enemies in an ongoing battle was just random and silly enough to strike me as genius comedy at that age. After all, the trees can’t even defend themselves. I told my dad “we should buy that!” but for some reason he didn’t. The problem was not etymology, but the modern meaning of those words in their modern context.

It is another thing to be naive about the history of a word. If someone does not know that “mormon” started out as an insult, then we shouldn’t pretend they need to bone up on their early mormon history in order to be more sensitive in their use of labels. “Mormons” is just a neutral equivalent for Latter-day Saints in today’s usage. Repeat after me: words get their meaning from their usage.

47 Comments »

  1. I told my dad “we should buy that!” but for some reason he didn’t.

    Har! Classic.

    Comment by Geoff J — November 23, 2008 @ 11:07 am

  2. True, but sometimes people find words offensive because of their usage, and other people may not be aware of the usage. For example, the term “douche bag” is particularly offensive, whereas to others it’s just a funny thing to say. While I understand that I need to relax and filter my ears, I think it is ok to express discomfort when a certain sound bite is uncomfortable to you, and more so, when you notice it is uncomfortable to others.

    Comment by Matt W. — November 23, 2008 @ 12:08 pm

  3. words get their meaning from their usage.

    I’m sure that after a few more decades of Mormons calling each other “jerkwads” it will become a term of endearment used on special occasions like birthdays and baptisms.

    Comment by Peter LLC — November 23, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

  4. I’m with you that usage determines meaning, but I think that raises the question of what determines usage. In communication, you have a speaker, a listener, and a background of shared social meaning. If I get your point correctly, you are not saying that the speaker’s intent that determines meaning, but the background of the speaker and the listener which gives the communication an objective meaning outside of the understanding of both the speaker and the listener. The problem with that is what happens when a word is used in the speaker’s peer group differently than in the listener’s peer group.

    I’m not saying this to imply that this is the case between arJ and Blake. However, to the extent that jerkwad or another word is still widely used in its etymological sense, I don’t think we can say that because the speaker does not intend or understand the word to have a particular meaning, that the word therefore does not have that meaning.

    Comment by Nate W. — November 23, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

  5. We have identified the etymological fallacy. Words don’t mean their history. When i call someone a jerkwad I’m merely reflecting the bad influence on me of Geoff. My mom used to wash my mouth out with soap after I spent time with kids like him. She never lectured me on the etymology of a word.

    Oh, and anyone who thinks that I was calling arj a piece of tissue filled with DNA is a lame brained piece of crap.

    Comment by Blake — November 23, 2008 @ 1:16 pm

  6. Blake: a lame brained piece of crap

    Hmmm… that has potential — though it is a little long for my tastes.

    Actually — since jerkwad was so painful to the highly sensitive blog ears of arJ and Peter LLC here are some alternate insults for obnoxious Utes and others I will now attempt to influence you with Blake:

    Fake German option:
    Dinglefritz

    Sounds like a cuss word but not really option:
    Jackhole

    The “weed” suffix category including:
    Jerkweed
    Dillweed

    (Inserting most any insulting noun prior to weed might work)

    And of course there is always the “butt” prefix family of insults you could fall back on including:

    Buttwipe
    Buttlick
    Buttmunch

    (Each of the above has the optional “er” to the interchangeable verb suffix for added oomph)

    BTW — Let’s not mention this little conversation to your mom…

    Comment by Geoff J — November 23, 2008 @ 2:05 pm

  7. Geez, I leave the Thang for a little while and all ya’ll dumbasses (pronounced doom osses) get potty mouths.

    Let me make a correction here. Jerkwad means “a bunch of idiots hanging out together at blogs” kind of like…um, never mind.

    Comment by Kristen J — November 23, 2008 @ 2:08 pm

  8. Matt W,

    I agree with your comment fully. Notably, your “douche bag” example is one in which the term is still used in its original meaning in addition to being used as an insult. I think this is what makes that term objectively more vulgar than a term which has lost its original meaning to history. I suspect it could be shown that this term carries a greater social stigma accordingly (as in, you may very easily image someone relating a story in testimony meeting using the word “jerk” without any reaction but you can’t easily imagine the same scenario if “douche bag” were to be substituted in place of “jerk”).

    Comment by Jacob J — November 23, 2008 @ 2:35 pm

  9. Geoff: You’re not the only really bad influence on me (tho my wife is warning me not to play with you). My mom was from Grantsville, Utah and she can swear up a storm with the best of them. In fact, the first inkling I had that swearing was merely a culturally conditioned excuse for the thin skinned was this – my Mom is an angel but she has a potty mouth. She is more charitable and Christian than the 12 apostles put together. Yet she can swear a string of words far better than I could ever dream.

    I also learned when I spoke foreign languages that their swear words had no emotional impact for me. I frankly don’t give a water-stopper my dear — because swear words a merely are merely cultural judgments and not metaphysical verities.

    However, I admit that I never use the F-bomb and I find it highly offensive (and I know the historical etymology of that word and it ain’t what you think).

    In my view the real bad stuff is using the Lord’s name in vein. If you want to tick me off, use the mindless “oh my G_d,” or if you want to see me go postal, use the name of J.C. in vain. I hate Judas’s Pri__t as well because it denigrates someone I love dearly. I also don’t like it when non-Christians sing Christmas carols that are really forms of worship — or use them as a means to make lots of money. My first grade teacher told me to never abbreviate Christmas as Xmas because it takes what is really important out of something that has no meaning without it (really!). As to the rest, my poor little brain is not very bright, so say what you real dear Santa Clause, I don’t give a monkey’s assistant.

    Comment by Blake — November 23, 2008 @ 2:41 pm

  10. Ooh, Jacob, your comment reminds me of the time I was teaching gospel doctrine and made some reference to “tearing him a new hole”. I had something like “tearing into him” in mind. Apparently some of the class members were a bit shocked by me using the term because it was originally more specific about the type of hole being torn…

    Good times with etymology in church.

    Oh, and some RM said something about crap in her talk the other day in sacrament meeting. That was amusing.

    Comment by Geoff J — November 23, 2008 @ 2:42 pm

  11. Peter LLC,

    I never said it wasn’t an insult, but yea, actually there are plenty of words that have completely reversed their connotation from something negative to something positive.

    Nate W,

    Very good comment. I agree with your point that the meaning of the word exists outside the intent of the speaker or the understanding of the listener. The problem of different peer groups is real and can certainly lead to giving offense when none is intended, or vice versa. You said that “jerkwad” is still “widely used in its etymological sense.” Although I don’t generally think of myself as sheltered, perhaps Peter is right on this one and I join the ranks of the very sheltered. All I can say is that I have never once heard it used in its etymological sense. So, as you and Matt have suggested, there is nothing wrong with telling Blake that the word has a vulgar connotation if he demonstrates an unawareness of said vulgarity.

    Blake,

    Good point about the difference between washing someone’s mouth out and lecturing them on etymology. That difference is at the root of my reaction. However, I must point out that the scatalogical “crap” is still used regularly to refer to feces, so it seems worse than jerk to me. We should do a poll where we rank bad words by vulgarity, that would be fun.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 23, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

  12. and I know the historical etymology of that word and it ain’t what you think

    Actually, I thought the etymology of the f-bomb was highly disputed amongst etymologists.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 23, 2008 @ 2:52 pm

  13. Geoff,

    Your “tearing him a new hole” vs. “tearing into him” comment just reminded me of a very relevant story which I’d totally forgotten. My wife is one of those naive people who doesn’t know any bad words. She must have picked up some bad influence somewhere (like Blake from Geoff) and spiced up here insult one time by switching out “jerk” for the livelier “jerk-off.” She had no idea this would drastically increase the vulgarity of her comment and was mortified when I told her why she might want to remove that one from her roster of insults. Again, that one still has a healthy usage as a specific activity which is what makes it so much more vulgar.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 23, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

  14. Surely you steered her toward the totally innocuous “jerkwad” variation of the word right Jacob?

    Comment by Geoff J — November 23, 2008 @ 3:00 pm

  15. Kristen! Lol. I must call you on your feigned surprise that we all got potty mouths when you weren’t looking. I seem to recall that you’ve been onto us for some time.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 23, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

  16. Geoff, bingo. :)

    Comment by Jacob J — November 23, 2008 @ 3:06 pm

  17. Blake,

    so say what you real dear Santa Clause

    I don’t know what that means, but

    I don’t give a monkey’s assistant.

    That’s a good one. I’ll have to clear it through the urban dictionary, but I think it will come up clean and I’ll have a new keeper.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 23, 2008 @ 3:11 pm

  18. Jacob J. (11):

    I actually don’t understand “jerkwad” to be in use much at all, and certainly don’t understand it to be in wide use in its original meaning–it seems like it would be the insult equivalent of cootie face to me. I was only saying that if jerkwad were in wide usage in its original meaning, then it seems like saying “I didn’t mean it that way” doesn’t constitute a good defense.

    I am curious about communication failure because of regional or subgroup usage differences. I recall a time at BYU when my friend was responding to a hullabaloo (the subject of which has escaped me) among a Spanish language BYU e-mail group. My friend, a native Mexican, suggested that everyone calm down and stop being “pendejos” to one another. Needless to say, he received some pretty furious replies to what, in his mind, was a pretty tame epithet.

    Comment by Nate W. — November 23, 2008 @ 3:27 pm

  19. Ah Jacob,I went and read the old post. Good memories.

    Comment by kristen j — November 23, 2008 @ 3:31 pm

  20. Nate W,

    Ahh, I didn’t realize the intent of your “to the extent that” in #4 before. Sorry about that. I think we are in full agreement on your point.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 23, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

  21. Even though I use the word “suck” on a regular basis, it bothers me when my 10 year old daughter uses it. I didn’t lecture her on etymology (I don’t need all of my children lecturing me on how that is a bad word every time I use it), rather I told her that people will judge her as being less intelligent due to her word choice. It is the same point I make about the way we dress, groom, and speak. I am very strict about keeping my children from saying, “And she goes” “And I’m all” “And she’s like” when in each example the third word is used as a substitute for the word “said”. I want my children to be able to speak the language of adults and be able to transition more easily into that world.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — November 24, 2008 @ 10:04 am

  22. Kent,

    I have to ask you since I hear that “curse words are a sign of a weak mind” line all the time. Do you really believe it or does it just sound good? Do you judge DKL to be less intelligent when he throws down a swear? Did George Carlin strike you as a big dummy?

    At work, I interact with people who run the gambit from potty mouth to very professional language, but I have never noticed a correlation between intelligence and I don’t think people actually make that judgment. I can imagine telling my kids people will judge them to be uncouth, but not less intelligent. But, probably I would tell them if they used that language in the wrong setting it would be rude and inappropriate, rather than trying to motivate them based on how someone else might judge them.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 24, 2008 @ 11:43 am

  23. Do you really believe it or does it just sound good?

    Hehe. I love it. What a great question. I suspect it would take a truly weak mind to really believe it.

    Comment by Geoff J — November 24, 2008 @ 11:46 am

  24. I’m not referring to IQ, rather social influence. I don’t make such distinctions with my children right now, but as they get older I imagine I will. To my kids (10 and under) being “smart” is as much a social badge as a description of someone’s intelligence, so I think they are understanding my usage for the time being.

    My point is that we are constantly communicating to others and we can choose to communicate in a way that leaves them open to our influence or in a way that may close them to our influence (not that we have complete control over the messages others interpret).

    Comment by Kent (MC) — November 24, 2008 @ 4:11 pm

  25. Nearly every insult we have traces back to something vulgar. But, pretty much no one today who uses jerk or dork or putz (or even jerkwad) has in mind the vulgar origins. Words take on new meaning based on their usage and these are just general purpose insult words in today’s usage.

    So… on the BYU-Utah thread, it would be perfectly OK to say, “Hall really f***ed up in that game,” since pretty much no one would think he actually had sexual intercourse during the game? Or is the “etymological fallacy” perhaps not quite as telling as some people seem to think?

    Comment by kuri — November 24, 2008 @ 5:18 pm

  26. When my nephew Spencer W. said that swearing was evidence of a weak mind trying to express itself forcefully, I just figured he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.

    Comment by J. Golden Kimball — November 24, 2008 @ 5:19 pm

  27. kuri,

    I never said that a word was benign so long as it was not used in its etymological sense. To misconstrue my comment in this way requires either malice or a fundamental misunderstanding of my point.

    The etymological fallacy comes into play when someone argues that a word like “dork” is offensive because it used to mean something offensive, even though it does not currently carry that connotation in our society. This is precisely the situation with my varsity scout a couple of weeks ago and it was the situation on the other thread.

    In your example of someone yelling “Hall really f***ed up,” this would be offensive because the f-bomb is an offensive word, uniformly acknowledged in our society as one of the worst of the naughty words.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 24, 2008 @ 5:58 pm

  28. To misconstrue my comment in this way requires either malice or a fundamental misunderstanding of my point.

    Or possibly a belief that your point isn’t logical.

    The etymological fallacy comes into play when someone argues that a word like dork is offensive because it used to mean something offensive, even though it does not currently carry that connotation in our society. This is precisely the situation with my varsity scout a couple of weeks ago and it was the situation on the other thread.

    “F***” is offensive because of its sexual connotations. Idioms such as “f***ed up” or the adjectival or adverbial use of “f***in’” have no sexual connotation. Since it does not currently carry that connotation in our society, it should not be considered offensive.

    In fact, an even better example is “mother******.” You described it precisely: “Words take on new meaning based on their usage and these are just general purpose insult words in today’s usage.”

    I don’t see why the etymological fallacy would justify “jerkwad,” which has a sexual origin but not a sexual connotation, but not “mother******,” which also has a sexual origin but not a sexual connotation.

    It just sounds like an argument of convenience to me. You like to use “jerkwad,” so the etymological fallacy clears its use. You don’t like to use “mother******,” so the etymological fallacy doesn’t clear its use.

    Comment by kuri — November 24, 2008 @ 7:11 pm

  29. it should not be considered offensive.

    But it is. And that’s what makes it different.

    Comment by Eric Russell — November 24, 2008 @ 7:57 pm

  30. Kuri,

    You clearly are completely missing the point. Jacob’s post shows that some words become generally considered quite tame over time. The idea, as Eric points out, is that there becomes a general consensus over time in a society of which words are deeply offensive and which words aren’t. The F-Bomb is still considered a deeply offensive word in our society so it is not at all what Jacob is talking about. But, for instance, saying something “sucks” is not considered particularly offensive in modern society. Yes, “sucks” probably started as something vulgar and offensive but over time the word morphed into a rather innocuous and generally unoffensive word to most people in our society.

    BTW — your arguments in this thread totally suck.

    Comment by Geoff J — November 24, 2008 @ 8:22 pm

  31. Sacrifice is sacred. I’ll tell you why, it’s right here in this OED…

    Comment by Eric Russell — November 24, 2008 @ 8:54 pm

  32. it should not be considered offensive.

    But it is. And that’s what makes it different.

    That’s my point. The “etymological fallacy” has little relevance to which words are acceptable.

    Comment by kuri — November 24, 2008 @ 9:01 pm

  33. But, for instance, saying something “sucks” is not considered particularly offensive in modern society.

    Sure it is. There are plenty of mainstream media outlets that won’t allow it to be used.

    Yes, “sucks” probably started as something vulgar and offensive but over time the word morphed into a rather innocuous and generally unoffensive word to most people in our society.

    This is just the same argument of convenience. You use “sucks,” so you think there’s nothing wrong with it “in our society.” That’s the only consistency in the argument here: words you use are acceptable; words you don’t use are unacceptable. But the vulgarity of sucks is still in dispute and the connotations of any insult that includes “wad” are obvious.

    Comment by kuri — November 24, 2008 @ 9:09 pm

  34. Kuri,

    To quote the wiki:

    The etymological fallacy holds, erroneously, that the original or historical meaning of a word or phrase is necessarily similar to its actual present-day meaning.

    That’s what the etymological fallacy is.

    The etymological fallacy has little relevance to which words are acceptable.

    Big deal. That seems to be entirely beside the point in this conversation. You can be offended by the word jerk if you want. But the etymological fallacy is the idea that everyone should be offended by it. Or more specifically, you can assume that the term “jerk” is necessarily a masturbation reference but you would be employing the etymological fallacy if you insisted that it must necessarily mean that. It is a fallacy because the definition of the term has changed/morphed over time. (The same principle applies to “jerkwad”)

    Also, when it comes to insults it is a bit of a bonus if the recipient of the insult is more offended by the insult than the vast majority of people would be… that’s the point of insults right?

    Comment by Geoff J — November 24, 2008 @ 9:41 pm

  35. Kuri,

    Back to your original comment in #25:

    So on the BYU-Utah thread, it would be perfectly OK to say

    What do you mean by OK? Since this is my blog I get to say whatever I want after all. If someone acts like a jerkwad I have no problem calling them a jerkwad at my blog. It’s one of the benefits of being the boss here I suppose. (I happen to like arJ very much, BTW)

    The severe error in your entire argument here is that you mistakenly assumed that Jacob was arguing that any old word is “ok” (whatever that even means) if the word doesn’t mean now what it originally meant. But Jacob wasn’t making that argument at all so you tilting at windmills.

    As Jacob suggested, you entirely misunderstood his point (despite your protestations otherwise).

    Comment by Geoff J — November 24, 2008 @ 10:18 pm

  36. Jacob J said:

    In your example of someone yelling “Hall really f***ed up,” this would be offensive because the f-bomb is an offensive word, uniformly acknowledged in our society as one of the worst of the naughty words.

    Not in all of society. To many who are the peers of my children (and even some folks my age), it’s just another word. The suggestion that a movie would be rated R solely because it has that word three times is incomprehensible to them. (It used to be once, but now you can have it twice and still get a PG-13 rating.)

    The c-word, which I have seen in print but never heard in conversation, is the only word I know of that is universally seen as naughty. Maybe some racist words and certain words referring to homosexuals are too (although if you’re a member of the described group speaking to peers you might use them under some circumstances).

    Comment by gfe — November 24, 2008 @ 10:39 pm

  37. Kuri (#28),

    I get the sense that you are more interested in being argumentative than in making a clear argument. I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

    F*** is offensive because of its sexual connotations.

    Partial credit. Words are offensive first and foremost because of a social norm. The fact that the f-bomb is still regularly used as a crass word for sex adds to its vulgarity (cf. #8). Even when divorced from its sexual connotation, the f-bomb is still considered a strong curse word. This is where your entire argument falls apart. You are failing to acknowledge this obvious point.

    Since it does not currently carry that [sexual] connotation in our society, it should not be considered offensive.

    I don’t know where you came up with this idea, but it is simply ludicrous and unsupportable. The social norms are what they are. Saying that it “should not” be considered offensive assumes that social norms are based on rules like the one you are proposing, but they aren’t.

    I don’t see why the etymological fallacy would justify jerkwad, which has a sexual origin but not a sexual connotation, but not mother******, which also has a sexual origin but not a sexual connotation.

    That is because you incorrectly believe that “mother…” is only offensive to the extent that it is carries a sexual connotation. This is the root of your misunderstanding.

    The justification for using the term “jerkwad” is that it is not considered an overly offensive word in today’s usage. I wouldn’t say it is polite, but it is a mid-grade insult. When someone on the other thread tried to claim that it was very very bad based on its etymology, they fell prey to one of the classic blunders.

    It just sounds like an argument of convenience to me.

    Hopefully you will be able to tell from the above that it is not simply a smoke screen to clear whatever insults I want to use. Think of it this way: If we did a scientific poll where people ranked words based on their vulgarity, MFer would show up near the top of the list and jerkwad would be much farther down the list. All I’m pointing out is that an argument about etymology can’t change that.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 24, 2008 @ 10:55 pm

  38. gfe,

    Not in all of society. To many who are the peers of my children (and even some folks my age), it’s just another word.

    Yes, definitely. You are pointing out that I used the phrase “in our society” and this is a vague term. I thought context would make my meaning clear, but your point is fair. A word that passes easily on a mormon blog may not be appropriate for sacrament meeting. A word that is considered offensive on a mormon blog might go unnoticed in a different setting. Bad words are bad based on their social context and since the social context varies the badness varies with it.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 24, 2008 @ 11:12 pm

  39. Geoff,

    The etymological fallacy has little relevance to which words are acceptable.

    Big deal. That seems to be entirely beside the point in this conversation.

    Well, OK, then. I did miss the point, because I thought Jacob was claiming it has considerable relevance.

    The severe error in your entire argument here is that you mistakenly assumed that Jacob was arguing that any old word is ok (whatever that even means) if the word doesn’t mean now what it originally meant. But Jacob wasn’t making that argument at all so you tilting at windmills.

    Actually, I was trying to argue — and not doing a very good job apparently — that if the etymological fallacy is highly relevant, then any old word that doesn’t carry its original “dirty” meaning should be “OK.” I never thought that was Jacob’s argument; I simply think that is where an argument from the etymological fallacy naturally takes us.

    Jacob,

    I get the sense that you are more interested in being argumentative than in making a clear argument. I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

    I can be argumentative, but I am both trying to make an argument and to understand yours.

    Since it does not currently carry that [sexual] connotation in our society, it should not be considered offensive.

    I don’t know where you came up with this idea, but it is simply ludicrous and unsupportable.

    It’s been argued somewhat tangentially before the FCC, most famously after Bono dropped an f-bomb on live TV and the network appealed its fine on the grounds that “f***in’ brilliant” isn’t a “sexual or excretory reference” (or whatever exact language the FCC uses to define obscenity in its rules).

    The social norms are what they are. Saying that it should not be considered offensive assumes that social norms are based on rules like the one you are proposing, but they aren’t.

    That is because you incorrectly believe that mother is only offensive to the extent that it is carries a sexual connotation. This is the root of your misunderstanding.

    I think it’s also because nowadays I hear it most often as a third-person compliment, e.g., “Look at the arms on that mother******” or “That mother****** can ball,” etc. I don’t find that any more offensive than many words that my children use in everyday conversation.

    The justification for using the term “jerkwad” is that it is not considered an overly offensive word in today’s usage. I wouldn’t say it is polite, but it is a mid-grade insult. When someone on the other thread tried to claim that it was very very bad based on its etymology, they fell prey to one of the classic blunders.

    Well, I remain pretty confused actually. I can understand that some words are offensive and some aren’t, but I don’t really see where the etymological fallacy is relevant and where it isn’t. But that’s probably just because my brain doesn’t always work the same way as most people’s.

    Hopefully you will be able to tell from the above that it is not simply a smoke screen to clear whatever insults I want to use.

    That sounds more insulting towards you than I meant it. I didn’t mean to imply that you were trying to justify bad behavior or anything like that. I was just trying to figure out where the logic of vulgarities and the etymological fallacy lead.

    Comment by kuri — November 25, 2008 @ 12:56 am

  40. kuri,

    I can be argumentative, but I am both trying to make an argument and to understand yours.

    Ok, cool. I don’t mind an argumentative posture in that context. Your #39 was quite helpful in understanding where you are coming from. A few responses.

    Well, I remain pretty confused actually. I don’t really see where the etymological fallacy is relevant and where it isn’t.

    It seems that our disconnect stems largely from a differing understanding of the etymological fallacy. Did you read the wikipedia entry I linked to in the post? If not, I recommend it. As it points out, the fallacy arises when we confuse the meaning of a word with the history and evolution of the word. Meaning is a matter of usage. The example I gave in the post about the word “dork” is pretty clear I think. The meaning of the word “dork” is a matter of how it is used today. If someone says that what it really means is “penis” because they looked it up in the online etymology dictionary, they are confusing the history of the word with the meaning of the word, thereby committing the etymological fallacy. Make sense?

    I think it’s also because nowadays I hear it most often as a third-person compliment

    See #38. In a certain setting with certain people, the f-bomb is not offensive. This is true of the n-word and pretty much every other objectionable word. I don’t disagree with you there. However, when you first raised the issue of someone saying that Hall really f-ed up, it was in the context of them saying it on this blog — very different social expectations than the one in which you refer to it being used as a third-person compliment. The point is that the appropriateness of the word is entirely a matter of the current usage of the word in the immediate social context in which it is used. Note that the etymology of the word does not factor into that equation. The fallacy would be to introduce it where it does not belong.

    I do remember Bono dropping the f-bomb. The trouble for the FCC is that they have to come up with rigid rules which are understandable to the broadcasters and they have to do it in the widest possible social context. This makes their job pretty difficult. Bono’s defense that you mentioned is reasonable given that he is defending himself against a fine based on the specific wording of the FCC guidelines. In that case, there really is a rule and the rule is the standard (legally).

    However, if we take the same argument and try to tell the ward members that they shouldn’t be offended by the f-bomb being dropped in sunday school because it was not in a sexual context, the argument is no longer reasonable because then we’re assuming the rule governs the social norm which is exactly backward. In real life, the social norm is the standard and rules are just attempts at capturing the social norm and putting it into words.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 25, 2008 @ 2:23 am

  41. As I was talking in the foyer with one man from my ward, he proceeded to tell me that it was alright to use the n-word because it originally meant a lazy person. I argued that it had connotations that did not allow it’s use in polite and civilized society. He used the word again as he argued in favor of it’s use. I then informed him that if he used that word again, ever, I would personally knock in down and stomp on his head. Then after he was out of the hospital, we would have a disciplinary council to try him for his membership for behaviour unbefitting a Christian. He never used that word again.

    I think my last argument finally caught his attention.

    Comment by Floyd the Wonderdog — November 25, 2008 @ 7:08 am

  42. Hehehe. That’s a funny story Floyd.

    Some people have social antennas that are apparently broken. They miss what is intuitive and obvious to the rest of us. In my experience it takes very direct communication to get through to them in many cases. Your story is a fine example of that.

    Comment by Geoff J — November 25, 2008 @ 7:56 am

  43. Someone up there said:

    The c-word, which I have seen in print but never heard in conversation, is the only word I know of that is universally seen as naughty.

    I suppose you’re referring to the unfortunate son of Mrs. Hunt, who was given the first name Mike.

    I’m amazed that there’s anybody in the U.S. older than, say, seven who’s never heard the word.

    Comment by Mark B. — November 25, 2008 @ 2:25 pm

  44. #5: a piece of tissue filled with DNA

    Jeff Lindsay has an entirely different take on DNA in wads here.

    Comment by Last Lemming — November 26, 2008 @ 7:36 am

  45. LL, awesome.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 26, 2008 @ 12:49 pm

  46. I have raised my children with as much freedom as I can stand, including freedom of speech. I draw the line at the n word, and one son takes exception to not being able to freely say that one word. He argues for the less known meaning: a lazy person. I think the word is seen as offensive for reasons or race in most circles. In the past , I have also been guilty of asking a male neighbor, “How’s it hangin’ ? Not knowing I was in his estimation, asking about his penis. My USMC husband informed me of this. I then asked my neighbor “How are things going/doing , which is what I meant.

    Comment by Kim Reece-Lairson — November 27, 2008 @ 10:55 pm

  47. My wife’s sister in law is fairly naive. She heard someone call a person a dildo. She ran about the hospital where she works as a nurse calling the nurses “you dildo,” having no idea what it referred to. When she found out what she was saying, she was mortified.

    Comment by Blake — November 27, 2008 @ 11:17 pm

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