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Tossing Pebbles in the Stream

This blog is my place to sit and toss pebbles into the stream. The stream of Life relentlessly passing before us. We can affect it little. For the most part I just watch it passing and follow the flow. Occasionally, I need to comment on its passing, tossing a pebble at it to enjoy the ripple affect upon Life's surface.

Friday, January 14, 2011

George Carlin ReDux

George Carlin!, where are you when we need you?

I always enjoyed George Carlin's stand-up routine about the "seven words you can never say on television." I think it was because to hear them with my young ears was delightfully naughty. I grew up in a household where swearing was frowned upon. Damn! was the one word we could say, with only a mild reprimand. I once called a boy a "homo" in front of my mother which got me a lecture. I didn't even know what the word meant. I only knew it made the boy not nice. In our house naughty bodily sounds and parts were referred to with their biologically correct terminology and an apology for using them, when necessary. Tits were teats and a fart was breaking wind. . . .well you know. . . . I need not go on further.

While Carlin's words are now regularly used on television (how times have changed at least for a nice suburban middle-class boy like myself) it seems he missed a couple of words, I think, ( he later expanded his list to an epic number of 200 which I have not seen.) He missed nigger and faggot. The n***** and f***** words are five letter words and not four letter words, perhaps that explains it?

These words have both been in the news lately. The expurgated copy of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn substituted more acceptable words for nigger among other "politically incorrect" ones. And now the Canadian Broadcast Standard Council has banned the playing of the Dire Strait's song "Money for Nothing" unless they bleep out the "faggot" word.

Producing a child sensitive version of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn may be a good idea. Better still would be parents showing a little sensitivity in deciding when children are old enough read the original text that was in dialect and reflected an historic time. Best, of course, would be to have parents read these books to their children so that they could help them put the language particularly the "nigger" word in historic and present social context. I remember my mother reading both of these books twice to me with no ill effects.

I lived in the black community in the United States, first in Roxbury. Ma and later in New Haven Ct., for nearly 10 years. Believe me! nigger is a commonly used word there. I lived in a neighbourhood where Parker and I were the only white family. He was three and I was sitting on the front stoop watching him play with some of the children on the street. The kids were a little older but we were popular because Parker had lots of interesting toys. Suddenly, there as a scuffle between a couple of the kids. "Give me that you dumb, nigger." In an instant, I had taken Parker into the house to give him his first lesson in race relations. "You must never, ever, use that word, nigger." I heard myself sounding like my mother, "You must never, ever hit a girl." I wanted Parker, even at his young age, (it was a matter of survival for us in that neighbourhood) to understand that words have power and there is an appropriate context for them, even some of the most offensive. I don't ever remember him using the word so maybe I did make an impression. I knew if my blonde haired ,blue eyed son called one of the kids on the street a dumb nigger, we would be in trouble.

Interestingly enough nigger is widely used and common place in some media. Have you seen the lyrics to gangster rap music. Using nigga instead of nigger does not make it any less offensive. I guess in some quarters it is fashionable language. Makes me wonder if we do not speak well of ourselves we have little reason to expect others to speak well of us.

What is most musing is that commentators on this issue in any media in an intelligent conversation cannot say or ever spell the word. It is the "N" word or n*****. Come on! folks it is only a word. It seems it is the most powerful word in American english.

I am sorry to say it is still used in my hamlet by children with Canadian French as their first language. For years, this always bothered me and I spend some time trying to get them to not use it. There personal encounter with an African or Caribbean, or Haitian Canadian would be rare to none. So I think they spoke out of ignorance. I finally decided that they were using a French Canadian dialect word "negra" which is less powerful meaning only "black." It still made me uncomfortable.

I took a local young girl to the city of Toronto years ago. She was one of the children I tried to stop from speaking about "negers". We were staying at my sister's place in a lovely neighbourhood of the city. She rented out a room to a lovely Jamaican girl. The second day this tenant poked her head in the door of the kitchen to say hello and almost before she left the room my young friend exclaimed "She's a "neger!". I just prayed that the young woman did not hear her. The next day, while sitting in the kitchen once again, we heard a noise at the front door. My young friend went to seen who it was and in an instant she was back, "There is another "neger".
I was sure the woman must have heard. She was my sister's cleaning lady. I went into the front hall to speak to her and gauge her reaction to my young friend's comment. I ended up telling her that my friend had never seen a cleaning lady. (How is that for redirection of the conversation. Cowardly me!) She came from a home of five children and her mother cleaned her own house. If the woman heard her comment, she was too polite to say. I was glad I did not have to make an apology and explanation that my young friend had yet to learn the power of some words and the ways of the larger world.

Confession time! When I was growing up we just loved the licorice candies "nigger babies". We would shamelessly ask for them at the store with our small allowance, three for a penny.
This was acceptable in my all white neighbourhood. We didn't know any better. Also, my favourite book when I was first learning to read was "Little Black Sambo" I am still not sure why it is so offensive. And for, course we loved to get to the "nigger toes" (Brazil Nuts) first in the Christmas bowl of nuts. I remember trying to decide between things using the rhyme, "Enie, meanie, minnie, moe, catch a Nigger by the toe. . . .) " When I first heard a black child in my neighbourhood in New Haven begin this I was stunned waiting for the dreaded "N" word. It never came "catch a tiger by the tail" he sang out. I would be an adult before I found this deeply offensive and shocked myself into not using these terms. It was not until I was midway through high school when I actually met and talked to an African Canadian, our new physics teacher and football coach. The civil rights struggle was in the news. They say confession is good for the soul. I think I and society have made some progress.

In spite of the sensitivity we have, myself included, to the use of this words we should be able to use it when discussing it in historic and socio-political meanings.

As for faggot, someone needed to inform the Canadian censors that the song in question used the word in a satirical way. I understand this song has been around for 25 years. I guess they figure better late than never.

Also, they should maybe make exceptions for this British group. The derogatory use of the word referring to homosexuals is largely a North American obsession. Faggot is widely used in Britain in several contexts. A faggot, or fag, is a cigarette. It is also a popular dish to eat. It is a bundle of sticks. I have seen it used referring to the yule log when a faggot of wood from one Yuletide is saved to start the fire for the next one. Historically it had been used to refer to a not so nice woman which may have resulted in it being used to refer to effeminate men, whether or not they are homosexual. Fag can be a verb as well as a noun. A faggot would then be a lower classman who fagged (did chores for) and upper classman. And there is the classless "Furious Famicom Faggot" cartoons. You may want to read Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" where you will find the word, before they bring out an expurgated version. Enough, enough! I invite you to see how many more uses of the word faggot there are.

I would hate to see the altering of historic texts by changing words that were once used and now are considered offensive. This is a slippery slope we should avoid. I also would like to think that we are all adult enough to say offensive words in certain contexts, such as an intelligent discussion of the word usage and power in our culture. Slang is part of the richness of the language, some just colourful; others, offensive. They tell us more perhaps about the speaker that what he is referring to. We need to think long and hard before we banish any word from any or all usages.

9 Comments:

At 2:46 PM, Blogger Anvilcloud said...

My parents used to have a book in the house called Forrester's Fag, the fag being the younger boy in a boarding school who was to fetch things etc for the older boy.

I don't think my mother ever totally gave up the use of the word, nigger as in "I worked like a nigger." Sadly, although I don't think her use of the word was for racial reasons, she was a bit prejudiced against other minority groups. I was had an Italian-Canadian girlfriend, and she was not at all happy about that.

Otherwise, our family was somewhat like yours -- very careful in the use of language. No swearing at all. In our house, to utter damn was damnable.

 
At 7:07 PM, Blogger KGMom said...

Ah, AC is reminding me of terms from my boarding school days in British era Rhodesia. We younger girls in boarding school would "fag" for an older girl. Very common practice.

As for use of language--yes, language has power. But words also have only the meaning we ascribe to it. There is no BIG dictionary in the sky.

As for changing Huck Finn--while I understand the thought that maybe more people would then read it, no change should be made. I watched Jon Stewart's Daily Show the other day and the "black" commentator (one of the cast) gave a wonderful reason NOT to change. That's our history--he said. How can you understand how things were if you "whitewash" the language.

 
At 9:33 PM, Blogger KGMom said...

I should have added that George Carlin is one of my favorite comedians. When I use his stuff in class, students ALWAYS want me to play the "words" video.

 
At 1:00 AM, Blogger Cheyenne said...

Excellent post.

I am against changing words in literary classics.

 
At 9:09 AM, Blogger Ginnie said...

It will take much more than a simple banning of words to cut out the use of derogatory ones...but, at least, it is acknowledgement of the problem.
It amazes me how we voted for and elected a black president and yet so many still see this as a threat. I proudly voted for him but I live in a very conservative area and they are quick to use the "N" word when referring to him and his administration. They fail to give any him any credit for the accomplishments he's made. It makes me sick.

 
At 9:32 AM, Blogger possum said...

When I lived on the island in Maine, my cousins and I spent every available moment outside, running barefoot, our long braids flying out behind us... the sun browned us beautifully - no tanning booth for us - and one day we heard some tourists call us "woods niggers." I did not know that was a term used for Indians in our neck of the woods. I have since heard Plains N****** out West. I had no idea what it meant, nor enough sense to be offended.

I think language in classics should be left alone.

I have a cuss jar here with fines for certain words. The worst one costs $5. All $$ at the end of the year goes to St Jude's Children's hospital. They don't get much out of the cuss jar anymore. But I send them a good check to cover my bad thoughts.

 
At 2:56 PM, Blogger judie said...

Oh sigh... I used to work at a black high school in NC where the students used that word with each other frequently. It was a teasingly endearing term. If I had used it, I think it would have created a riot. So how come "they" can use the word and not me? If rapsters can use it, why not others? BTW I dislike rap music. I dont even consider it music. It doesnt take talent to talk words that rhyme. Where's the music?

And...I love Dire Straits no matter the language. Also, I once had a very close friend who was gay and we hung out together a lot. I went partying with him to his gay bars so often that his friends called me a fag hag...in a friendly way of course. So...how come "they" can use the word and not me? Stay warm dear Philip.

 
At 1:01 PM, OpenID goodnightgram said...

Faggoting is also a form of lace knitting. And when I was a young kid, Brazil nuts were called by a different name - not politically correct.

 
At 8:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your post made me think of a hilarious Daily Show segment I saw a few years ago. A quick google search found it on this site. http://www.milkandcookies.com/link/59858/detail/

Sometimes and somehow making a mockery of issues that get people so unreasonably uptight hits the mark so well.

 

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