Written By Sherwood Kohn
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Baloney, unless you have the hide of a rhinoceros.
Words matter. Why else does our society make lying illegal?
Why does legend virtually canonize George Washington for telling the truth?
Why do we teach our children not to lie?
And words can hurt. Why do street toughs fight and even kill each other if someone “disses” them? Why did the ayatollahs issue a fatwah against Salmon Rushdie? Why do we have laws against libel and slander?
Words can change the world. Winston Churchill is credited with rallying the British people with his eloquence in their darkest hour. Franklin Roosevelt’s “You have nothing to fear but fear itself” is often quoted as a powerful influence in our country’s recovery from the Great Depression.
But on a more visceral level, the words that we use every day reveal much about our society (See “Culture Trash” on Page 30). If our speech is literate, civil and temperate, it mirrors our attitudes toward each other. If, on the other hand, it is ignorant, rude and violent, it indicates a contempt for learning, good manners and the rule of law.
The young are always the first to adopt new words. That is quite natural. They are passionate, prone to peer pressure and generally immoderate. Often they are rebellious. They like to shock their elders and keep them at bay, particularly where language is concerned. The motto of the youth culture of the Ô60s, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” is a good example.
But of late, the words that teenagers employ like code have taken a particularly coarse turn. Words that were once the exclusive currency of soldiers and jailbirds have come into common usage; and not only among adolescents. The language of the street has pushed everyday conversation to the brink of crudity and beyond.
What can be done about it? Back in the day, profane children had their mouths washed out with soap. But that seems draconian today, especially since adults are using the same expressions. And one can hardly legislate or regulate language in a democracy.
Perhaps the best remedy is to provide people with educations that arm them with broad ranging and precise vocabularies that they can use to express themselves without stooping to vulgarity.