Serious: this essay isn’t rated G.
I love, love, LOVE words! I think there’s a word or turn of phrase to to describe or make ANY situation better. Smash your fingers in the car door? Yup- I have several really good ones for that. A kid figuring out a math problem they’ve been struggling with FOREVER? Oh yeah, I’m right there narrating the pleasure and exultation with glee.
So it really pains me to have a dislike for any words. I’ve been struggling a lot with this concept lately. My middle school son is coming home regularly with tales he’s heard and quotes of what he’s been called that are taking my already wild hairstyle to all new levels of crazy.
At first, I thought I might be just getting old and just needed to chill. Perhaps I was simply too old-fashioned to think it was harmful for 11 to 14 year old boys telling other boys to suck someone else’s d*** or that they are “<insert colorful adjectives of your choice> bitches” or <rhymes with punts> . This language seems to float in and out all day, every day.
I received assurances that yes, our language naturally changes all the time, in a great article by Betty Birner, PhD of Northern Illinois University. As Dr. Birner points out on the Linguistic Society of America website, “Language will never stop changing; it will continue to respond to the needs of the people who use it. So the next time you hear a new phrase that grates on your ears, remember that like everything else in nature, the English language is a work in progress.”
That lead me to ponder the needs these students are experiencing. Our words help us deal with life. What needs are these words meeting for those alive today?
While it’s definitely not the most “grating” term (that adjective doesn’t even begin to describe my reaction to some of the words my son has shared with me this year), I decided to focus on the word “bitch” to examine this idea of need large-scale. Arielle Pardes wrote a marvelous piece, The Evolution of the Bitch, in Vice in 2014 that gives a comprehensive review of the term’s evolution in meaning from its birth in the 15th century to the present. Some people argue that words like this have lost their negative connotations- that they can actually be terms of endearment. I agree with Ms. Pardes, however, when she writes that the term “bitch” still relates to relative power: women with “too much” power are considered bitches. She continues with a remark on the reverse: “But when men aren't asserting enough power, they're called bitches too.” The word is still clearly double-edged. In my mind, it’s because we’re still not living in a world where every person is treated with respect and as equal.
Back to those middle school kids and their needs. I think they are attempting to assert their dominance and power. I think they are trying to self-protect via any means available to them. Those means include learning this sort of stuff via a multitude of sources- probably both electronic and through their more immediate surroundings.
Why be concerned? Soaked into their everyday lives, the weight of these words will color their relationships from here on out. I believe this is showing up in our culture already. In Wisconsin, Aurora Health Care is investing millions of dollars through their Better Together Fund to assist colleges and their students deal with and prevent assault. Carroll University is using some of their funding to help teach male students how to demonstrate “healthy masculinity”. Are the mouths they had as pre-teens at least partially responsible for displays of “nonhealthy” masculinity in their late teens and early 20s?
I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to explore tough topics: politics, race, love, hate, war, peace, pleasure, depression, growing up/old and dying. Explore these themes in writing, vlogs, music, video games- everywhere. However, let’s use the entire depth and breadth of the world’s many beautiful languages. We all have something to say. We should all feel like we can say it and get our points across without it being at the expense of someone else. Let’s do all this eye-to-eye, not looking down at the other.
It’s going to take quite a bit of work to get there- but I think the goal is achievable and also of great importance. For the 11 to 14 year olds to come and beyond.
Addendum to those interested/involved in K-Pop:
The desire to shock and stand out are also at least partially responsible for the heavy presence of these words in the entertainment industries. I’m from the US music market but I have a personal interest in the K-Pop scene as it has historically offered a product that is fun, energetic and not reliant upon the types of misogynistic or violent themes other music genres have explored. I sincerely hope the artists in K-Pop think long and hard before emulating the rougher terms and behaviors just to sell something. Never say something or do something just because you think it’ll get you fame or to fit in somewhere.
I’d also like to propose that someone in the K-Pop industry, if they are looking to make further advances into the US market, look into connecting with some schools within the US to offer an Asian Studies program with K-Pop as a portion of the curriculum. Many students love the musical style already and the schools will be able to get behind a vast majority of the available content. Imagine what connections could be made between the two cultures! There is a hunger out there to learn about other people and their music. I’d love to help make this happen. If you agree, please comment or DM me.