Preserving Language Standards as You Cover a Raunchy Culture

Last Thursday was a big day on commercial television for the C-word, used twice on NBC’s “Today” and once as a joke in an episode of “Glee,” in which the C-word turned out to be “condom.” Journalists, take notice: We will be seeing more of the C-word and will face interesting and controversial decisions about what to do when it appears.

The N-word and the F-word have earned their reputations as the most recognized taboo words in American English. Their notoriety, surprisingly, derives from their frequent use. A new book, “The F-Word,” written by Jesse Sheidlower, a distinguished British lexicographer, catalogs in 270 lively pages hundreds of diverse uses — noun, verb, modifier, expletive, even infix — marking it as among the most versatile words in the English language.

While the F-word has become more acceptable in some discourse communities (such as the world of stage and screen), the N-word is more dangerous than ever, a taboo with serious consequences if broken, a curse complicated greatly by its casual use among some young African-Americans.

That leaves the C-word, a vicious noun, standing alone as the most despised word in American English, a word that feminist author Germaine Greer describes as one of the only words left with true shock value.

How surprising, then, to hear it uttered not once but twice on the “Today” show on June 10 — especially from the lips of a naïve looking 13-year-old girl.

Meredith Vieira asked Kayla Manson if she had seen a text message in which a boy had threatened to kill her best friend. She denied knowledge of that message, saying she only saw two others: “the one when she calls him a rapist, and she calls him a c—, I mean where he calls her a c—.” When the host realized what had been said, she rather gently told the girl that they had to be careful about the language they used on the air.

(Vieira had to deal, not long ago, with another shocking and unwarranted use of the word on “Today” by an irresponsible Jane Fonda.)

Later on the show, Vieira apologized for the C-word but in a way that took the 13-year-old off the hook: “I just want to apologize to our audience at home for some of the rough language in that last segment,” she said. “And it’s really not Kayla’s fault. I asked her about the text message, and she didn’t realize … she was giving me verbatim, what was in it. She didn’t know there are certain words you can’t say on television. Anyway, we do apologize for that.”

Kayla had been arrested for her involvement in the terrible stomping injuries — with steel-toed boots — perpetrated by her boy friend upon her girl friend. In a startling and insightful commentary, the girl’s lawyer described the degraded sensibilities of middle school students — that words and actions most adults would find deviant and shocking were now standard among some children.

It was not that long ago that the use of words such as “pissed off” would have been considered a deviation from broadcast television’s norms. We live in a culture greatly influenced by the wide availability and popularity of pornography in all forms, and we have seen many manifestations of a greater tolerance for what was once considered forbidden.

The new digital media culture is abandoning many of the norms still enforced by the Fourth Estate. The world of Walter Cronkite has morphed into the world of Howard Stern and beyond. The language norms of the emerging Fifth Estate hold many of the old inhibitions in contempt, and it is easy enough to find all the taboo words, including the C-word, as part of the working vocabulary of angry readers offering feedback in digital towns, without a sheriff in sight.

Even as I’ve explored the interplay of taboo language and culture, I’ve been mindful of these taboos. In my new book, “The Glamour of Grammar,” due out in August, the F-word appears several times, in contexts about its growing acceptance as slang and other nonstandard uses of language. I spell it out, but only when I’m quoting its appearance in a literary work. Yet I never spell out the C-word and refer to it just once, a pun that Hamlet imposes upon Ophelia, when he refers to sexual innuendos as “country matters.”

According to Wikipedia and other sources, the C-word first appeared in the 13th century as part of a place name for what may have been a prostitute’s alley. It appears that versions of the word used in Chaucer were not considered offensive but became so by the time they got to Shakespeare.

To be called the C-word is the ultimate sexist insult, one female colleague told me. I responded that I thought it was as bad or worse when the word took on homophobic connotations. For a man to call another man the C-word, is to strip him of any vestige of masculinity, a metaphoric form of emasculation.

I certainly want the word in my dictionaries (if it is the most offensive word in our language, I want to be able to cage it, at least for serious scholarly studies). For example, from Webster’s Third we learn that the C-word is considered obscene, that it can be traced back to medieval times, that some variations of the word existed in a number of European languages, and that it means two things: a crude synonym for a woman’s private parts; and a derogatory description of a woman as a sexual object. By means of a rhetorical device called metonymy, the part here does truly represent the whole — and reduces a whole woman to a part.

There is an argument to be made that the exclusion of a word from common usage is to lend it a magical power it does not deserve. That was certainly true of the F-word when I was a child, an inhibition that even my 91-year-old mother has outgrown. Homosexuality was once euphemized as “the love that dare not speak its name.”

That disinclination to speak the dreaded name is inherent in a language pattern established by J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter books. The embodiment of evil is named Voldemort, sometimes called the Dark Lord by his minions. Almost every character refers to him as “he who cannot be named.” And when the brave ones name him, the very sound of the name sends a shiver through the others.

I once was stopped by a Canadian customs officer for carrying the book “Ulysses” by Irish author James Joyce across the U.S.-Canadian border. The novel contains the C-word and much else that censors found objectionable. He flipped through it suspiciously before giving it back. The word appears in “2666,” a contemporary novel I am currently reading. Literary artists should not use the word promiscuously, but, as always in a free society, deserve the benefit of the doubt.

I find it hard to imagine anyone objecting to the fact that the C-word made a surprise cameo appearance on the “Today” show. There was no delay mechanism in operation to bleep it out. There was no expectation that a 13-year-old girl would blurt it out.

I, for one, am glad I heard it. It was real. It explained something about who these young people are, and how easily the appearance of the word in a text message could explode into violence.

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