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What makes a bad word bad?

Anne Stickney

Warning: This post may contain language that is offensive to some.

Our own Fox Van Allen tackled the subject of the odd quirks of the mature language filter last week -- the fact that some objectionable words have been mysteriously left out of the filter, while others of a much less objectionable nature have oddly been left in it. None of this was noticed of course until the mature language filter was bugged so that it reset itself, resulting in a lot of people spewing a lot of random keyboard symbols until they remembered to turn it off again.

Personally? I'm not sure if the mature language filter is at all an effective tool. Since the first days of WoW, Horde and Alliance players have not been allowed to speak to each other. Part of this was because of faction separation, but part of it was to discouraging griefing, which happened all the time in PvP situations. Players of the opposing faction could kill you repeatedly, but they couldn't swear at you -- until, that is, players realized they could communicate with keyboard symbols arranged into letters. This ability was soon squashed.

And that's the problem, isn't it? It doesn't matter how much you block a word. If someone is determined to have their say, they will find a way to say it. If you can't talk to the opposing faction, you roll an alt and cuss them out that way, or over voice chat, or via email, or on Twitter, or wherever they can conveniently contact you. So why try blocking it at all? More importantly, what makes a bad word "bad," anyway?

Words and meaning

Apple Cider Mage had an interesting post earlier this week about objectionable terminology of a different kind -- the sexist kind. She takes a look at the disparity between male and female armor, but more importantly, she addresses the term "slut plate," used to describe scanty plate bikinis and other fabulously nonexistent protection from the wrathful elements of the Warcraft world. It's not the armor she's concerned with -- after all, scantily clad women warriors are pretty much commonplace in the fantasy genre. It's the term "slut" that is bothersome, and she does an excellent job of explaining why, even suggesting an alternative term to use.

All of this got me thinking back to Fox's article earlier this week and about words in general. Maybe it's just because I do a lot of writing, or maybe my brain just works in different ways. But to me, words are very odd, powerful little things. Here, we have a random collection of lines we call letters, placed in a certain order, given a certain pronunciation, and then given a collective meaning. All of that out of a little collection of lines.

But those meanings change over the course of years, and a word that meant a bundle of sticks at one point in the distant past now means something entirely different and particularly objectionable to the majority of the public. When did that happen, exactly? How did people take a word with one meaning and give it another -- and more importantly, why did we let it grow and fester into a word that we are now ultimately offended by?

There are words in the English language that I will not use, which is why this post has not been peppered with terms that I don't feel comfortable laying out there for you to read. But as I think about it, I wonder why I am so uncomfortable with saying them, writing them, or even thinking them. They're words. Little collections of lines, put together in a certain way and given a particular meaning -- and apparently that meaning is strong enough that I don't want to even place those words to paper or say them aloud.

Gamers and language

Gamers and other people who use offensive language don't particularly care about that meaning in one way or another. What they care about is how people react to the meaning and the words. What they are doing is deliberately throwing a lot of of those collections of lines at people and taking delight when people get upset and take offense because of that meaning. It's a power play, and there are far too many people out there who buy into it on a continual basis.

In short, it's not the words that are harmful; they're collections of lines. Placed in order, and given meaning. The person who gives those words meaning is the person who holds all the power over those words, not the person who is saying them. The person who is saying them is hoping beyond all hope that the ones who are listening are going to give those words the worst meaning possible and have some sort of negative reaction to it.

Maybe telling a person to stop using those words isn't enough. Maybe trying to block that person from saying those words isn't enough. The only thing making a bad word bad is the meaning we attribute to it. Human beings have been around for thousands of years, and in those thousands of years, we've decided that some words are bad and others are good. And over the course of history, we've taken perfectly good words and collectively decided to change the meaning of those perfectly good words into something that is considered bad and wholly reprehensible.

If we have the power to change the meaning of a word from positive to negative, why do we seem to lack the power to stop it from changing at all?

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