Some years ago I was chastised by a reader for using the word “sucks”, as in “networking sucks”. He took pains to point out that its origins were pornographic (I’d throw in beastiality as part of the origin depending on your corner of the world – at least in my highschool there was always a donkey involved), and that my use of it was vulgar, and even so far as to promote the decline of the language.
I can sort of see his point, but in reality when I write for Ask Leo! I write to be *accessible*. That means I try to write using familiar terms and in a conversational style that people can relate to, and of course understand.
Almost everyone relates to something sucking.
Saying something like “networking sucks” makes my position or opinion on the matter crystal clear in a way that another word would not. It’s a combination of something being “difficult to get working properly, things break often, and it can be very frustrating”, with an extra dose of “frustrating” thrown in. All wrapped up in one word that’s exceptionally common in conversational English. Yes, it’s on the edge of
vulgar, but obviously not so close to it that I won’t use it if appropriate. In this case to me it was the perfect word.
What annoys me is when people throw word origins, or derivations, or history at me. Why? Well, let’s see if I can be clear about this: It doesn’t matter what the word used to mean. What matters is what the word means today, and specifically what it means to the audience you’re speaking to. Any highschool teacher who’s accidentally referred to a male chicken as a “cock” in class knows this all too well: know your audience.
The other side of it is that words have exactly and only the power that we give them. Nothing more, nothing less.
Consider the word fuck. You probably flinched when you read that, because it’s not a word I use all that often, and certainly not in my published writing. It’s your reaction, and the reaction of the masses that give that word its power. It’s that reaction that makes it verbotten in so-called civilized discourse. If you didn’t react, if you didn’t care, then it would lose its power, instantly.
That’s why I crack up when I see people railing against a perceived profanity in language, since it’s their very reaction against the word that give that word such immense power.
I know the reactions that a word like “the f-word” generates, and understand that it’s inappropriate for my professional writing in most cases. (Though at least one person has built a very successful business career out of it being part of her personality – part of who she is.)
What amazes me is that while a word like fuck is considered the height of profanity and vulgar, a word like “frak” is not.
In fact it’s quite acceptable to use frak in place of fuck. Why am I amazed? Because they mean exactly
the same thing. In fact, frak was invented as an exact replacement to get around TV censorship issues.
Some will argue that frak isn’t a real word. What makes a word real? That people use it. I hear people using frak more and more. Yet because the listeners either don’t understand, or think “oh, cute, it’s that word the sci-fi geeks made up” they don’t give it any power. It means exactly the same thing, and yet even when people understand that, the word has none of the same power.
It’s not what the word means at all that matters. It’s all about how offended the listener chooses to get.
As a writer that’s both empowering and frustrating.
Empowering, in that in a general sense if you know your audience you know what works for them and what is likely to offend – or get their attention if need be. Frustrating in that, again, knowing your audience, fear of offending them can cause you to avoid certain words.
I vow to use frak more often, and continue to use suck, but in both cases only when they’re the right word for the topic and audience.
Let’s face it. Sometimes things just fraking suck.