I used to work for a plumber and an electrician. They shared the building and me as office manager. My vocabulary expanded greatly in the four years I worked there. I know 200 words for doo-doo. I got to thinking about them today, and about "bad language" in general.
What makes a word bad?
When I was a child, there were two words for the bodily byproduct: the proper "movement" and the childishly naughty "poop." I remember singing "Tra la la poop dee ay!" and feeling so wicked I could hardly contain myself. Discussing "Lake Titicaca" with my peers was also cause for great hilarity. In high school, I learned the more pungent "crap" and the German "Scheiße," in college the English "s" word and the French "merde." (In many ways, I was a very sheltered child.)
Now that I'm grown, it seems to me that each and every one of these words describes exactly the same thing, so why is one worse than the other?
Late one Halloween night when I was in junior high, my house's windows were written on with soap . As I was leaving for school the next morning, my Mom was on the front porch scrubbing the mostly illegible scrawls off of the storm door. The one thing I could read, it was written boldly several times, was "69."
"Why," I asked Mom, "did they write 69 on the door? What does it mean?"
The snarl I received in reply sent me scurrying on my way.
I walked home that afternoon with Merry and Carole. I described the scene and asked Merry what it meant. Both Carole and I waited intently for her reply. We knew that she would know, after all, she had a bosom, so she was practically a grownup.
She thought about it for a while and then told us, with an air of great authority, "It's laying an egg. Like Marti Baker."
"Ah," Carol and I said, nodding our heads as if we understood.
At least we knew it was bad. Marti Baker was always getting sent home because she wore her skirts way too short, she was positively scandalous.
My little sister often called me a "dank" when she was annoyed with me -- which was most of the time. I knew that dank was an adjective meaning wet and cold. I finally asked her why the heck she was calling me damp, dismal and dreary.
"Don't you know anything," she hollered, "I'm calling you a dank! Dank! D-I-N-K, dank!"
"Well, you're not pronouncing it properly," I said, and went downstairs to look it up in the dictionary. It wasn't there.
When I asked Merry, she told me it was a boy's thingie. I knew about those wormlike appendages from having seen the neighborhood boys write their names in the snow. They were certainly homely and unappealing, but I didn't understand why my sister would call me that.
But the power of a mystery word was something to be reckoned with, I'd known that for many years. My brother and I were both taking German, but my dictionary was the better, so I called him "Metzgermesser" when he ticked me off. It made him wild because he didn't know what it meant. He was even madder after he snitched my dictionary and found out it meant butcher knife.
My favorite thing was to call other kids "homo sapiens". Until Bob cried to his mommy and I got called on the carpet for calling him a "Homo something." In the presence of the Bob's mom and my Mom I confessed to calling her boy a homo sapiens. Bob's Mom swelled with righteous indignation and told my Mom she certainly hoped that I received a suitable punishment. It was all my Mom could do to keep a straight face until Bob's mom left, but I got the lecture nonetheless.
Seems to me that a word's a word. It's the way it's said and the intent that make it bad.