A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
Way back in January (seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?) the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council banned Dire Straits’ 1985 song, “Money for Nothing” from Canadian radio because somebody in Newfoundland took offence to the word “faggot.” On Monday, August 29th (that’s seven months later, if you’re counting) the CBSC came out with its final report. The final report established two things — once and for all. One, comedy in Canada is not dead, and two, it’s okay to play “Money for Nothing” again. Apparently, either, a seven month absence from the public airwaves can etymo-cleanse even the most grievous hurt out of 25-year-old song lyrics or Dire Straits’ use of “the other f word” (as the CBSC called it) wasn’t all that offensive in the first place. As they say on NFL broadcasts, “You Make the Call!”
It strikes me that seven months is a bit much to wait for a ruling. After all, the song itself, from opening riff to final fadeout, is less than five minutes long. However, so be it: Canadian justice isn’t the swiftest thing on the planet. It also strikes me that it’s terribly odd that last week “the other f-word” was an instrument of discrimination and oppression but today “faggot” is just another word we don’t use in polite conversation. Again, so be it. Words, like water, have a way of finding their own level.
For example, when I was a lad, comedian George Carlin came up with a list of “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” When he did say them, not on TV, but at a festival in Milwaukee, he was arrested. These were deadly words indeed — in my day. Fortunately, it’s no longer my day, and Carlin’s list is now commonplace on TV, showing up on sitcoms, sporting events, the Academy Awards and even popping out of the mouth of the Vice President of the United States – when he wasn’t looking. Not so deadly now, are they George! To be fair, Carlin actually researched (“plagiarized” is such a hard word) his deadly words from Lenny Bruce, a comedian from the 50s and 60s. Obviously, words have been offending people for some time now.
In that spirit, I propose (for the 21st century) a new List of Seven Deadly Words that should not only be banned from television; they should be taken out and shot. To say they offend me is like saying the Black Plague was an annoyance.
Number 7 – It’s a golden oldie but it’s still just as vapid now as the day the first Valley Girl uttered it in a San Fernando mall. “Whatever” was originally a term of dismissal, but it has now become an ever-ender tagline. For example, people go to the store or whatever; they play tennis or whatever. They eat, drink, give birth, sing songs and have their appendix out — then “whatever” immediately after each activity. I have even heard “He died or whatever.” Just a point of interest here; there is literally no whatever after the Grim Reaper takes your pulse. “Whatever” is turning life into a series of vague comings and goings that drift around without definition or purpose.
Number 6 – “Going forward” (sometimes “moving forward”) is supposed to convey that sense of purpose that “whatever” has already abandoned. It’s a tagline also, meant to put a positive spin on a mealy-mouthed statement — as in “We’re going to review our options, going forward.” What this actually means is “The decision’s been made, and I don’t want to get into a big argument right now. So shut up and forget about it.” The problem is, in reality, everybody is already going forward; that’s what humans do. The minute we go from horizontal to vertical in the morning, we are, by definition, going forward. That’s why our eyes are in the front of our heads, for God’s sake. We don’t have to announce it like we’re doing something special.
Number 5 – This is a compound word whose parts are used interchangeably and all have the same meaning – nothing. “Empower/engage/embrace” was originally used by politicians who hadn’t read the briefing papers and didn’t want to look like dolts on national TV. This led to some really goofy statements like “We need to engage the youth vote.” First of all, you can exchange either of the other two parts of the word and not change the meaning (Try it!) Secondly, the sentence doesn’t mean anything, anyway. Unfortunately, the word escaped into the general population, and now ordinary people are “embracing /empowering/engaging” themselves all over the place. It still doesn’t mean anything, though. So, the next time somebody is “engaged/embraced/empowered” by Sheb Wooley’s philosophy of life or some other such nonsense, ask them why – or, better still, how.
Number 4 – Another Valley Girl classic that snuck into the language, “totally” is a junk word additive that nobody needs to use –ever. Perhaps at one time, way back in Ridgemont High, it had some emphatic power, but today there is no difference between “I finished the painting” and “I totally finished the painting.” Nobody even hears the word anymore; not even when it’s phrased in the negative, as in, “I totally didn’t finish the painting.” Oddly enough, this doesn’t mean I never started the painting – which, of course, it should.
Number 3 – It’s “amazing.” Written down, it looks just like every other word, but in spoken English it takes on a proverbial whole new meaning. When spoken “amazing” has a drawn-out second “a,” and altering the drag alters the meaning. “Amaaazing” is completely different from “amaaaaaazing” although it really doesn’t matter because everything that walks, runs or crawls is now “amazing.” Chairs, windows and all other inanimate objects are “amazing.” Meghan, Bryce and the neighbour’s cat are amazing, as well as a road trip to Brazil. It all depends on that second “a.” Eventually when we see the rings of Saturn — in person — “amazing” will last for 6 and a half minutes.
Number 2 – We’ve finally accomplished what George Orwell wrote about in his novel 1984. We’ve created an all-purpose word that is the answer to all questions and the response to all statements. “Awesome” is becoming the word we say in reply to everything.
“Good morning.” “Awesome!”
“Your sister is a terrorist and they’re taking her to Guantanamo.” “Awesome!”
It’s also means yes: “Do you want to go to the hockey game?” “Awesome!” However, it never means no. It can mean good, but never bad or indifferent. In fact, it’s never negative, at all. “The storm was awesome.” now means there was a lot of wind and pretty colours. It doesn’t mean Mother Nature’s destructive power can kill people. “Awesome” now lives in that happy, happy fairyland where everybody gets a rainbow.
And finally, Number 1: the most offensive word in the English language is “like.” Eventually, every sentence we speak will begin with “like.” “Like” will be inhabit every phrase we utter. “Like” will become part of everything we do and every observation we make. We’ll never actually do or see anything sharply described again – it will always be just slightly similar. “I’m, like, going skating.” Or “He was, like, standing there.” Or “He was, like, standing there while I was, like, going skating.” If this crap keeps going “like” will kill clearly defined speech and become the modifier for everything we do, feel or see. It’s poised to strangle the life out of our language and the beauty and precision of the English is on the verge of dying a slow and agonizing death.
There are plenty of offensive words out there, and thoughtful human beings don’t use them; if nothing else, that’s just good manners. The Polite Police are there for the yobs, who haven’t got a clue in the first place. However, it seems perfectly acceptable for otherwise reasonable people to systematically abuse our language. They have cut the guts out of it, without a second’s hesitation. This offends me, and let me tell you it’s the canary in the mind shaft, warning us about just how vague and jellied our lives have become.