What’s in a word?

A recent column on the use of profanity and obscenity drew quite a bit of reaction. I’d written about language and how it affects people.

The crux of the discussion was that identifying words that are too gross to appear or be uttered in public places is difficult. How do we sanitize language?

Coverage of President Trump’s verbal choices drew much fury in the press. I was a bit miffed at reading terms like s—holes to describe the topography and living conditions of people in Africa and other regions. A flurry of letters appeared in the daily press, analyzing the suitability of such terms.

And of course, my own sheltered existence — of which about 20 years were in a parochial (as in “parish”) school — may have tempered my attitude toward what some people call “fighting words.”

As I began the recent column on Trump’s use of language, I believe I made it clear that I would not engage in profanity. By that I meant that I would not use the actual words that offend; rather, I’d water them down in hopes of diluting the terms and sanitizing them a bit. But I found even that a big task.

Most people, I am sure, know the translations and connotations of what we call the f-word. We hear it often. I saw it in print under the Gallinas Street Bridge one day my brother and I joined friends and played hookie from school. I’d heard the word uttered by a kid under age 10. In those days the word usage was rare; today we don’t need to search much.

Somehow seeing or hearing the actual f-word didn’t seem to faze me or my friends. There simply are places and occasions in which that word isn’t proper. My main objection to the f-word is that it isn’t “pretty.”

And it’s an unattractive word. It doesn’t contain glides like the letters r and l; it lacks sibilants like s or z; and it doesn’t contain any sound that can be prolonged.

So what’s wrong with an occasional (or even frequent) use of the f-word? To me, the answer is simply that the word contains elements that aren’t pleasant to the ear. The word ends with a hard sound, and the beginning letter is often drowned out by the tough plosive sounds at the end.

Is it possible that people who use this word do so for its shock value? Utter that word as a child, in the presence of your elders, and your mouth receives an Ivory Soap cleansing; use the word in front of a gang of boys and you have a brawl.

Say it on other occasions, such as at a tight baseball game and you get stared at. Say, at a game, “That was a f___ing good beer,” and you may win applause.

A student from long ago kept pushing me in a class in Cuba, N.M., about what exactly makes the f-word objectionable. I explained much of what I’ve written here. But Mathew wasn’t satisfied.

Then he asked, “Do you mean that any word can be improper?”

That, in a simple eight-word question had been all that I’d tried to explain.

So we chose the word “pepper.” Why “pepper”? I didn’t nominate that word; Mathew did, but it proved to the class that words exist only because we give them meaning. So if people are taught to shrink in shame upon hearing “pepper,” that proves my point, and Mathew’s point as well.

Of course, we all know that salacious language exists only because we’d not only coined these words but deemed that they’d be offensive if used according to instructions. It was pleasing to discover that most of the class caught on to what I was trying to explain. As for the f-word, we could give it an entirely different connotation and eventually wring out any hint of profanity.

Yes, I was pleased that my lecture at Cuba reached most of the students.And I was doubly pleased with a quiet senior, who usually sat in a distant corner, yelled out a few days later, as we gathered at the football stadium for homecoming, “Hey, Mr. T. your lecture was full of pepper.”

• • •

Like countless New Mexicans, Chris Martinez recently had an identity crisis when it came time to renew his driver’s license. When he gave his name at the Motor Vehicle Division, he was told there were no records of a Chris Martinez, even though he has been licensed as Chris for 65 years.

That bit of confusion required him to drive to Santa Fe to obtain his birth certificate and ultimately jump through a bunch of hoops. It turns out the MVD recognized only his middle name, Ramon, as legitimate.

That mix-up, a product of REAL ID, required him to make several name changes to his bank account, utility bills and other documents. And he fears he may need to make an appointment in court to legalize the name change. He said he won’t mind if people start christening him Ramon.

(Chris Martinez was featured in last Friday’s Optic as a kidney recipient and as the administrator of the Crimmin Scholarship Fund, which has awarded 320 full tuition scholarships to area high school graduates.)

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