A loss for words

This week I had to deal, second-hand, with someone deeply, personally, angrily offended by the indiscriminate use of vulgar language — not mine, and the circumstances really aren’t all that interesting, but it got me thinking in a meandering sort of way about why someone might or might not reasonably be offended by vulgar and obscene language. There are far more important things to be offended by (poverty, homelessness, random violence, endless war, greed, hatred, sex trafficking, the casual abstraction of human beings for profit, pleasure, politics and convenience), and language formerly known as “bad” is so ubiquitous that I’m not sure where anyone would escape it long enough to remain offended by it.

And yet, on reflection, I decided that that is precisely the problem: that words meant to be extreme are ubiquitous — and as a consequence it becomes more difficult to express ideas that really are extreme, even really important and good ones. I’m not arguing against any word or words, or even against “strong language” that transgresses the limits of what’s allowable in polite society. What bothers me the more I consider it is the normalization of that transgression. It seems to me a problem for two reasons. First, which ought to be fairly obvious, without some common ground of language strangers can’t safely have a conversation without fear of giving or taking offense. But second, and to me more interestingly, because normalizing transgression makes transgression impossible. If “strong language” becomes conversationally standard, there’s no way to express strong feelings. There is now no longer a word capable of expressing the sort of outrage that certain choice words once could.

Take a safely literary example: Victor Hugo’s retelling of the Battle of Waterloo in Les Misérables. As the day wanes and the tide turns inexorably against the French a legion under the command of “an obscure officer whose name was Cambronne” sees the end nigh but will give up neither the field nor the Empire:

When this legion was reduced to a handful, when their flag was reduced to a shred, when their muskets, exhausted of ammunition, were reduced to nothing but clubs, when the pile of corpses was larger than the group of the living, there spread among the conquerors a sort of sacred terror about these sublime martyrs, and the English artillery, stopping to take breath, was silent…. Touched by their heroism, holding the death-moment suspended over these men, an English general… cried to them: “Brave Frenchmen, surrender!” Cambronne answered, “Merde!”1

Merde!, a word simply not used in polite society or literature of nineteenth-century France and in Charles Wilbour’s original English version left untranslated, but which derived all its power and, here, its glory from its very unspeakableness. “To fulminate such a word at the thunderbolt which kills you is victory,” Hugo intoned, but what such word could anyone speak now? If general about to lose a battle merely yelled “Shit,” who would notice?

That’s an extreme and perhaps artificial example, but there are times, I think, when a man truly needs to swear, and it’s hard to know what to say at that point. Vulgarity and obscenity, transgressive language, have their uses, or ought to — but you can’t transgress the limits of polite society if polite society has no limits.

That much has been noted by others, but it strikes me that there’s a common thread between the normalization of obscenity and the roots of a comment I received last week on my “Ordinary Miracles” post. If life were a miracle, the commenter wrote,

…then all ordinary peaches would grow from trees rooted in organic soil and be picked by gentle hands only when ripe, only when no traces of green remain in the skin. All ordinary peaches would be placed carefully in a single layer in white buckets to be transferred to the packing shed, where they would be sorted and arranged in tray-lined flats. And then, they would be chauffeured four hours to the organic farmers markets in Seattle, where people would wait in line to spend $3 per pound for Red Haven peaches from Rama Farm.

I knew that the word miracle was a bit of a landmine simply because it’s a word rooted in religion and thus likely to call to mind a specific religion with who-knows-what connotations in the mind of a reader; and that essay wasn’t the place to define my terms carefully. But I intended it as a powerful word, and I used it deliberately. What I wasn’t anticipating (though perhaps should have seen) was that words like miracle might be so overused that they have lost the power to shock us. Miracles of modern science, miracles on ice, Miracle Gro, Miracle Whip, Natural Vegetarian Miracle Conditioner2, the Miracle Mets, the Fort Myers Miracle (also a baseball team). Such miracles aren’t ordinary; they’re merely banal.

But that, I gather, was the only context my commenter had for the word — as meaninglessly ubiquitous hyperbole, as the branded and trademarked stamp of a marketing campaign.

A miracle, like an obscenity, is a kind of transgression. Naming something as a miracle puts it by definition beyond the bounds of human knowledge and control, beyond the bounds of a polite society that is built on the promise and premise of knowledge and control. It overturns conventions and pretensions; it ought to make people uncomfortable. But if we have normalized that transgression too, and the word has lost its power — how then to shake anybody up?

There is, it seems to me, no better way to prevent people from comprehending the idea of a miracle (or of anything else) than to use the word so indiscriminately that it loses all meaning and power. We have trouble conceiving an idea without words to express it: George Orwell understood this, but he had the method backwards. The Newspeak of 1984 replaced all of the beautiful, colorful, expressive words in English with generic terminology like “double plus good,” but direct attacks on language, as on anything else, are likely to create martyrs. It’s been far more effective to drain the life and meaning from language by normalizing colorful superlatives than by banning them, and we can’t blame anybody for it but ourselves.

  1. Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, trans. Charles E. Wilbour (New York: The Modern Library, n.d.), p. 289.
  2. Currently residing in my bathroom. Whether the conditioner itself is miraculous, or whether it conditions vegetarian miracles, I can’t say; I haven’t used the stuff.