When was it that stupid became a bad word?
I was volunteering in my daughter’s kindergarten class last year and mentioned in passing to a student that I had just done something stupid (namely, put a marker cap on a pencil instead of a pen) and was immediately called out.
“Oooooh!” the student said, with a certain amount of glee mixed in with his shock. “You just said the S word!”
The S word?! Last time I checked, the S word meant shit. I could maybe accept slut or slag or skank as an alternate S word, especially if it came out of the mouth of a kindergartener who should never have been exposed to those words’ sexual content in the first place. But stupid? Please.
I have another friend who doesn’t want her daughters to ever say they “hate” something.
“That’s a strong word,” her daughter said to me, when I told her that I hated cauliflower.
When I jokingly asked the girl’s father if I had missed the memo condemning the word hate, he said in all sincerity “Well, it is a strong word.”
Damn right, it’s a strong word. And sometimes perfectly kind, caring, well-raised individuals have strong feelings that are best expressed by just such strong words.
The truth is that my feelings toward cauliflower go beyond mere dislike — aren’t fully expressed by a phrase like “I just don’t care for cauliflower.” I am in fact repulsed by cauliflower, find its mealy mouth feel and sour sting utterly revolting on the palate, its pale coloration and Barney-like bulbousness an assault to the eyes.
Call me stupid, but that sounds like hate to me.
And is my hatred of cauliflower really so dangerous it must be censored?
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not in any way advocating for hate speech, by which I mean the kind of incendiary rhetoric that belittles individuals or groups of people and serves primarily to stir similar hatred in others. I can also understand that it’s important to refrain from calling other people stupid or saying you hate them because such words hurt other peoples’ feelings and those feelings matter (except for maybe when that other person is Donald Trump).
But let’s review the facts. On the first count, I called a silly action I had committed, namely putting a marker cap on a pencil instead of a pen, stupid. On the second count, I had the gall to say that I hated a vegetable. These don’t seem like censorable offenses to me; rather, they sound like examples of hyperbole.
For those of you a little rusty on the definition of hyperbole, it means overstating the case to such a degree that it is no longer meant to be taken seriously, and can have both comedic and dramatic effects. To lose this ancient linguistic tool would have far reaching implications: Our suitcases could no longer “weigh a ton” (don’t want to go offending any plus-sized suitcases, now do we?) and “to die laughing” might leave others wondering when the funeral is.
Banning words, just like banning books, isn’t the way to change how people feel deep down. In fact it may even have the opposite effect; by simplifying the problem, it numbs people into a kind of well-meaning complacency, rather than challenging them to look for the truth inside of themselves even if it’s sometimes not exactly what they want to see.
Up until having children my everyday speech was peppered with all manner of swear words, words I enjoyed using because they better captured the full sentiment of how I felt. I have polite-ified my speech to some degree since becoming a parent to spare my child the embarrassment of repeating those words in good faith (no one wants to hear a 4-year-old yell “Fuck!” at the playground when she doesn’t get her rightful turn on the swings), but I’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Because the frustration I experience when I’m struggling with a particularly challenging day is just not released by saying “Well, gosh darn it.” It’s released by saying, “You’re fucking kidding me,” even if it is spoken under my breath at home in a room by myself.
You’re fucking kidding me just takes the sting out of it, capturing the moment by signifying the degree of my frustration (the more off-color my word choice, the more intensity I’m feeling) and declaring that I’m the boss of me! Gosh darn it, on the other hand, only serves to underscore a feeling of powerlessness, as if I’m expected to tow the line of politeness even in the face of an overt slight (unless of course I’m uttering it in my most snarky voice possible, in which case we’d have to file it under irony, which I’ll let you look up yourself).
So for now I’m going to stand up for stupid, and hold on to hate. And when my daughter gets older I’m going to reinstate crap and fuck and shit and all the rest of them into my lexicon. Not for use all the time, or in all places, and only very, very rarely in reference to particularly objectionable people.
But sometimes, when the situation demands it, the coarse, the polarizing, and the taboo sound just right to me.