Swear words are signs of the times

2010-04-19 00:00

I HAVE great respect for any parents who have successfully managed to educate their young children on how the meaning of words develops and changes, because I tried recently without much effect.

Jason wanted to know why some words were acceptable and others were not, why others were fine for adults to use but not children, and still others used to be bad words but are now okay. In other words, I had — or at least tried to have — a fairly complex linguistic discussion with a nine- year-old. I ended up getting myself tied up in knots and I suspect that Jason was none the wiser.

All of this came about after I used the “S” word when I nicked my finger while preparing supper and Jason scolded me for setting a bad example for him. He then went on to question me closely about why his grandfather was allowed to say “damn” and “shut up”, but he couldn’t, and some boys at school thought “yissus” was bad while others used it blithely and often.

There was a time when the very worst of the bad words we weren’t supposed to use in polite society started with an “F”. Not so any more, it seems. As society changes, so does language usage, including vocabulary and, of course, swearwords. Some Hollywood movies would have us believe that the “F” word is now an acceptable part of ordinary conversation. The same seems to go for “bloody” in some local circles, judging by how often it crops up in one sentence. I suggest that there’s also an emerging crop of newly derogatory words in our local lingo, swearwords that are particular to South Africa.

One such word, which is is also an “F” word and fast emerging as a new national swear word, is the title of that Big Brother of sports organisations. It makes the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler’s propaganda machine look like a bunch of pacifist vegans on a meditation weekend. Few people, whether they’re soccer fans, entrepreneurs or journalists seem to have anything good to say about Fifa. The Vatican and the ANC could take some lessons in centralist control and censorship from the soccer body, and Eskom and Telkom’s monopolies have nothing on its grip on marketing, merchandising and other business matters.

A final crop of emerging expletives particular to Pietermaritzburg is inspired by a group of people who must surely hold the honour of being the most reviled people in recent times: many of those who work for the dark empire at the city hall. Who’d have thought it could one day be something of an insult to call someone a mayor, a municipal manager or a process manager? Pity many couldn’t manage processes better to prevent their job titles from fast emerging as modern-day swearwords.

The new clean-up task team surely has a job that qualifies for the TV programme Dirty Jobs . Whether it’s cleaning up mountains of rodent-ridden, weeks-old garbage, picking their way through the maze of fraudulent tenders and dodgy finance deals that are as dirty as the city’s ageing sewer system, or reclaiming ill-gotten monies from the grubby pockets and bank accounts of corrupt officials, they have my profound pity, admiration, and gratitude.

 

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