Words that Cut

“Some speak rashly like thrusting with the sword, but the tongue of the wise heals”      (Prov 12:18, my trans.)

Words are groupings of sounds that represent ideas, actions, things, relationships. The aggregate sounds, themselves, have no essential “meaning.” They are conventions whose representations are tacitly agreed upon by native speakers of a given language. A given aggregation of sounds may, therefore, represent entirely different concepts in two distinct languages:  “gift,” pronounced identically in English and German, for example, represents “a present” or “poison,” respectively. Accept a gift from an English-speaker graciously; avoid Gift offered by a German-speaker assiduously.

Since these aggregations of sound are culturally-bound representations of something in the real world, cultures assign them “basic” references, nuances (cf. “fat” and “voluptuous”), tone (“loquacious” is neutral; “big mouth” is combative), level (i.e. formal or not), sphere of life (cf. “rhinoplasty” and “nose job”), etc. In English, as an accident of history, a group of mono-syllabic words, usually four-letter and typically Anglo-Saxon in origin, came to be associated in the Norman period of English history with the “low-class” Anglo-Saxon population whereas the Latinate French of the conquering class connoted quality and elegance. Most of these words refer either to bodily functions or to food.  One may say “urinate” in high society without fear of reprobation; the alternative four-letter word denotes the same thing, but its connotations are low-class, vulgar (from the Latin for “common”), even offensive in some contexts.  If one does not wish to seem boorish (from the Latin bovis, “cow”) or churlish (from the Old English “peasant”), one does not employ the four-letter words freely.

Of themselves, then, the usage of these words does not fall under the Decalogue prohibition against using God’s proper name deceitfully or lightly, regardless of what our parents and Sunday School teachers may have taught us.  In one category of usage, they function as their Anglo-Saxon ancestors did, namely to denote something in the real world. One may warn one’s companion not to step in the dog “feces” just ahead, employing the Anglo-Saxon, and probably escape reproof.  In another category of usage, however, they function as what Southerners call “cuss words”: offensive, boorish, crude language used for effect, usually to gain attention, to belittle, or to give affront.  Often, they are, as Southerners say, “fighting words.”  They cut. They function as verbal weapons. The one who uses them often intends to do harm with them.

Just yesterday, the president of the United States reportedly described a number of nations, primarily having African (black) and Hispanic (brown) populations, as “sh-thole” countries. In this usage, the problematic compound noun functions metaphorically to denigrate whole populations. It betrays its speaker’s motives. In a non-metaphorical use, the noun would refer to the kind of hole over which one placed an outhouse. The purpose of the hole would be to receive human waste. The contents of the hole would be human waste.  The color association also resonates. The contents of the hole are brown-black. The president’s metaphor, then, labeled the contents, the black and brown populations of the countries he identifies, human waste. The president went on to suggest that Norway (arguably the whitest of the white) would be a more suitable source for immigrants to the US.

Admittedly, many of the nations in Africa and South America have not attained a level of economic development comparable to the US.  They lag behind in education, health, infra-structure, etc. The president’s comments, however, not only disparage (from Old French, “to degrade socially, reduce in rank, to devalue”) whole populations as human waste, but they assume that Norwegians would want to immigrate to the US.  Norway has a budget surplus equivalent to 14% of GDP and government debt half that of the US when adjusted for GDP (http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/compare/Norway/United-States/Economy).  Norway ranks second in the world in literary rates, the US eleventh. (http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/compare/Norway/United-States/Education)  Norway ranks twenty-fourth in the world in overall life expectancy; the US forty-seventh.  The US does rank first in the world, however, in obesity rates; Norway ranks twenty-sixth.    (http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/compare/Norway/United-States/Health)

Hmmm…I wonder if Norway needs Old Testament professors.

Even worse, the president’s remarks suggest that he has not learned the significant role played by the accidents of birth in human lives. The definition of human worth has never been where a given human being begins life, but by how far that person can go in it. By that measure, some of the people who could contribute the most to society in the US began life in grass huts, not in upper-class neighborhoods in New York.

I pray that the human beings whom the president sought to defame will recognize that boors can sit in the oval office. I pray further that these persons will attain their noble aspirations.  We are worth what we profit the world, not the profit we take from it.

“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart…”