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We are become struldbruggs

Posted by Baldur on Sunday, December 19 2021 at 05:13:09AM
In reply to Casual F-Bombs By Kids. What Say You? posted by Eeyore on Friday, December 17 2021 at 04:13:07AM

You may recall the struldbruggs described by Jonathan Swift in his "Gulliver's Travels". They were a phenomenon in their nation of people who simply did not die - though they still aged. Swift noted that after a couple centuries they could no longer communicate with anyone but other struldbruggs about the same age, because over time the language had changed enough that it was essentially a foreign language.

And so we see the same thing as young generations adopt new words and terms and even concepts that are incomprehensible to their elders. But this does not just apply to entirely new words, but also to how older terms are used.

So, when I was young "fuck" was the worst of all words. I saw a girl I knew expelled from school for saying it. But we were taught to call stupid people "retarded" in order to spare their feelings, as this was the new, polite term to be used. (Recently I have seen young moderators in some places online angrily insisting that the word "retarded" can never be used, even in its original sense of "slowed down" when the statement has nothing to do with people.) At that time "Damn" and "Hell" were also words to be avoided, but their occasional use could be forgiven.

Go back to 1939 and the movie "Gone With the Wind". This was a somewhat controversial movie at the time because of the line, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." But it was not controversial otherwise. Now, of course, it is being censored for being historically accurate, but no one gives a damn about that line. In fact, most people would be astonished to learn that it had ever been controversial on that account.

Go back further, and I am told that at the time that Charles Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol", that Ebenezer Scrooge's signature comment, "Bah! Humbug!" was at least in bad taste. Perhaps not quite as offensive as "Damn" in 1939 or "Fuck" a few decades ago, "Humbug" was at least something that decent people did not say casually. Now it is a mere anachronism, an antique, a mere curiosity that arouses no strong feelings at all. And how many today even know that "Drat" is a contraction of the historically offensive "God rot!", or that "Zounds" is a contraction of the historically sacrilegious "God's Wounds!"?

In the case of words like "retarded" which start out as a euphemism but then become seen as offensive because they still describe the same thing as the words they replaced, we can talk about a euphemism treadmill. Perhaps the most notable euphemism treadmill among English speakers in the the last century or so is the progression from "nigger" to "negro" to "colored" to "black" to "Afro-American" to "African-American" to "person of color". (It was sometimes amusing, about thirty years ago, to read American newspapers whose rigorously policed style guides produced such curiosities as articles about the Apartheid regime in South Africa suppressing the minority African-Americans there who made up the majority of the population.) Curiously, the first two words in that list quite obviously derive from the Latin word "niger" by way of Spanish or Portuguese "negro", all of which mean "black" or "dark" or "swarthy" - but that is of no interest to those policing language. It should also be noted that "black" has been acceptable in this usage for at least three centuries. (Meanwhile, we will know that racial hatred is truly dead when no one feels a need to use a euphemism to describe race - which is where most people other than academics already are.)

But when it comes to swear words it seems an opposite progression is taking place. Perhaps because a swear word is only an effective swear word if it is shocking and offensive, over time it loses its effectiveness as it becomes repeated too often - until eventually it becomes a parody of itself, and an object of amusement rather than an object of offense.

In any case, as we gradually become struldbruggs it is out of our hands. On the one hand I consider it quite unladylike and ill manners for a young girl to say "fuck", because that is how I was raised and it's difficult to shake that - but on the other hand I don't really care, because it's all kind of pointless in the long view of things. Still, it does say something about how a girl was raised - at least for the moment. In another twenty years, who knows?

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