A Real-World Vocabulary Lesson: Should Any Words Be Off-Limits?

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

A verbal jab can be just as hurtful as a punch in the face!

This is a different blog for me as I am used to dispensing information in the way of  a classroom tip, or I may give some insight from my own personal writing experience.

However, as a teacher and as a writer, and more importantly, as a parent and human being, I understand the power of words, which is what I wish to briefly focus on in this blog. 

These are my own opinions, so take them for what they are worth in relation to your own way of thinking.

In this graceless age, are our words powerful, or are they lost in the noise of anger?

We all have heard time and time again that words are powerful. It's a cliche that is becoming meaningless...but, I argue, only if we let it.

Words ARE powerful, and they can be catalysts of ideas which enact lasting change and lead to a better society.

However, if used maliciously, we all know that words are demoralizing weapons, and their effects can tear down a society.

Who doesn't remember a hurtful comment that was hurled at him/her either thoughtlessly or maliciously? 

Vicious words most certainly can sting. 

In my eighth grade E.L.A. classroom, we spend much time discussing how our word choice and tone varies depending on the task, audience, and the setting in which we are writing.

I set boundaries for my students.  

For example, if students are writing a formal essay which I shall read and assess, they are directed to work on word choice, and I caution them not to use first person personal pronouns such as I, me, or my, we, us, second person pronouns you/your, or graveyard words such as a lot, things, get, got, hang out, kids, etc.

No matter how many times we work on this, they seem to creep into their formal writing.

In the same way, when I discuss with my students the language of bullying, or words that are inappropriate in school, invariably, I hear them as they reverberate around the building.

And adults are no better.

Most adults, including myself, don't always practice what we preach.

I hear adults speaking poorly on a routine basis.  

I will accept that I am one of  the worst offenders. I am by know means a saint, and I am as humanly flawed as my counterparts.

In my classroom, I model proper diction and verbiage.  I try to be a model citizen.

However, outside of school, I have been known to use an expletive as a way of shocking someone or getting a laugh.

Most people don't expect me to use ubiquitous, derogatory language, so when I do, it is usually to evoke surprise.

All of a sudden, someone is listening.

My words have shock value.

Case-in-point: I am sure, by now, you are aware of  the derogatory word (and this is putting it mildly) Samantha Bee used to describe a picture of Ivanka Trump with her son.

She used the "C" word, and in this context and case, it didn't refer to cancer.

If you are unsure of the terminology to which I am referring, think of the most disgusting word you can think of that begins with the letter c and  which demeaningly refers to a woman's private body part.


In my opinion, there are just some words that should never be used in any setting under any circumstances no matter the objective or the audience!

The "C" word is unacceptable, and call me old-fashioned, but I believe it has no place in our lexicon.

Unfortunately, we most certainly do live in a graceless age, but what is worse, this world now lacks basic social boundaries which in the past would never be crossed.

While some argue this is a great thing, the line between the acceptable and the outrageous is now blurred. There is a huge grey area, and we are all mired in the swamp.

Although some will say my thought process is a threat to the First Amendment, I think it's time to resort to common sense and set some verbal boundaries for the next generation and ourselves.

Many commentators and pundits on television seem angry and are spewing venom in the name of journalism or comedy!

It's everywhere!

It's the same old vitriolic, low-class bashing which has unfortunately become the new normal since Donald Trump was elected.

Clearly, Samantha Bee cashed-in on this momentum toward the downward spiral of effective communication, and she most certainly received the momentary shock value she sought.

However,  I think she should fire her writing team as their communication skills are seriously lacking.

Call me a simpleton, but I still can't derive the correlation between Ivanka Trump's picture, the "C" word, and President Trump's "feckless" immigration policy.

I think the point is that there doesn't have to be.

Right now in our society, if you are aligned to a certain  political ideology, disparaging, unwarranted, rude comments are limitless and boundless.

Conversely, I was just as shocked that she used that particular "f" word  correctly, so I'll give some points back to her team. Few people know that feckless means irresponsible, which perfectly describes her disgusting comment. 

At one time in our society, people who used vulgar, distasteful language were thought to be ignorant and immoral. 

Now, they are celebrated, late-night television hosts who take-in millions of dollars and viewers.

Vulgarity seems to be the rule of the day, and we try to pass it off as acerbic wit.  

It is not. 

I dare say that if Shakespeare was in the audience, he would quip, "I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed."

We all know that Samantha Bee's audience tunes in to see her bash conservatives, and judging from their uproarious, positive reaction, they certainly received their money's worth that night.

Now, do not misunderstand my disgust.  I am not a conservative who is miffed that another so-called conservative was under attack.

What's disturbing to me is Ms. Bee's comment was no accident. As a few pundits pointed out, Ms. Bee used the "C" word intentionally:

It was not a slip-of-the-tongue.

It was scripted; then, it was taped.  Finally, it aired.

That word was meant to wound.

It was meant to demean.

There was no punch-line or joke.  

It was a foul-mouthed, personal attack plain and simple.

Her words were not thoughtless; she knew their weight.

Her attack was malicious, and it was her full intention.

Although this is a word men have been forbidden to utter, I think you'll agree it sounds just as abhorrent when a woman unleashes it on a female opponent!

The moral: the word is repugnant and sexist when it comes forth from anyone's foul mouth! The mention of it degrades a woman and cuts her to the quick. 

I will concede, however, that once Samantha Bee received backlash, she apologized on Twitter for her comment.  I will give her points for this as did her network, TBS, which is also owned by CNN.  

As I tell my students all the time, and as I try to do in my own life, if you make a mistake, own up to it and genuinely apologize.

And above all, work very hard not to repeat the same offense!  This action denotes that you are truly sorry.

However, how did using this word serve her?

Did her comment bring her ideas into the fore-front of our collective thinking and elevate our thinking in a profound, auspicious way?

The answer is no.

Moreover, I question whether her own self-aggrandizement, which lasted a few hours until she was forced to go back and apologize and retract her words, was worth it?

Through the use of the "C" word, was the intentional act of debasing herself and bulldozing through a verbal boundary to gain negative publicity and ratings worth more to her than her character and lasting legacy?    

Judging from her actions, I would say yes.

Even if her intention was to shock, the "C"  word has no place on television, but if it does, what does it say about us a society?

Author Mark Steyn's take is that the 'F" word has lost it's shocking punch as it's appearing more routinely on television, so we're on to the next, most vile word we can find to describe and attack those with whom we disagree.

Hence, all of this begs the question that in today's climate, are we teaching children fairness and to take responsibility for their actions? And, are we teaching kids that in our society, the consequences of one's actions are fair and equitable?

I don't think so.

Rosanne Barr's highly rated television show is canceled due to her discourteous, racial comment concerning the appearance of Valerie Jarrett.

Ms. Barr was dealt with swiftly and harshly even after she vehemently apologized just like Samantha Bee did.

Yes, one can argue she has made disparaging comments in the past, and she was warned to stop.  She didn't; thus; she was fired.

Yet, her tweet came in the middle of the night.  No, this does not excuse her harsh words nor does it make them okay, but she certainly wasn't reading it off a teleprompter as her show aired.

Will Samantha Bee be fired for her attack on Ivanka Trump which was just as personal and unwarranted?

I wager to bet definitely not!

While she has temporary lost some advertisers, it seems her apology is sufficient for now and most likely will be well into the future.  

If you really think about it, Samantha Bee did cross a line, but she also did that which she is hired to do, which is to shock and make people laugh. She seems to have achieved her objective.

I am curious to see if Ms. Bee ever does use that word again, and if she does, will she ever use it toward someone with whom she aligns politically, or will she only use it against those with whom she strongly disagrees?

I won't be tuning in to her show to find out. 

No, the consequences of people's actions in our society are by-no-means fair or equitable.

So here is the takeaway:

  • Is this how adults should be acting?

  • Is this the societal atmosphere in which we wish to raise our children, where civil discourse and healthy, spirited debate no longer exist?

Here's the real-word vocabulary lesson I challenge all of us to teach our children:

1.  First, we need to get back to basics in this country.  Children and adults need to think very carefully before they speak, no matter what their peers maybe espousing

As we know, children need boundaries.  They crave and seek them though they rally against them.  

Obviously, adults need them, too.

It is up to us as the role models in our children's lives to tell them there are certain verbal boundaries that should never be crossed!

Once words are said, they can never be taken back even when they are followed by an apology.

This is the real lesson.

2.  There are certain words that should be off limits whether one is a child or an adult.  The "C" word and the "N" word are two that fit that bill.  

Vocabulary is a natural component of any classroom, but it also is how we are judged out in the real world.

The more articulate and well-versed someone is, the more revered and respected he/she is.

Is this still the case?

There  are thousands, essentially millions, of words that can adequately describe our feelings without debasing ourselves and using words which undermine the impact of our intention and ourselves.

 I recently came across an article I read a couple of years ago entitled, "Facing the Consequences of Using the N-Word" by Isaac Bailey, which was posted on CNN's website on May 2, 2016,

"The same goes for any person in power who wields that [N] word not to deepen an important conversation, to add historical context to a debate or discussion, to embrace someone as a loved, respected brother (which is how Wilmore used it in reference to Obama) but instead to demean and belittle."

When my students and I read,  To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee,  before we reach chapter 9, where Atticus is called a 'nigger lover' by a family member for his decision to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, my students and I have a frank discussion about the context of  the 'N" word.

The "N" word  was used during the 1930s during the Jim Crow era in the Deep South.  It was used as a weapon of hate to 'demean and belittle' and was a rampant part of many white southerners' vernacular.

However, while it was acceptable given the time and the place and the mood of Maycomb, Alabama, I make it very clear to my students that there is no place for it in our classroom or in our community in 2018.

So, this naturally leads into lesson number 3:

3.  When in doubt, one should channel his/her Atticus Finch:

A. Do your best to speak the truth when necessary, but do not personally attack someone.  Be forthright, not condescending.

B. Realize that silence is sometimes the most effective weapon in a war-of-words. Think, too, of  John Morley's astute quote, "You have not converted a man because you have silenced him."  Just as Atticus does in chapter 23, pull out your hanky and wipe the spit of someone's hurtful words from your cheek and walk away.

C.  Realize that when a controversial topic comes up, be respectful as you are in essence fighting your friends.  After all, we are all Americans.   Agree to disagree in a civil manner.

 D.  Practice the golden rule and do unto others.  Think before launching a personal attack. If the tables were turned, would you want to be on the receiving end?  

 E.  Stay true to yourself and be the better person.   You can only control your actions, not anyone else's.

F. Build your reputation and your legacy one word, one action at a time.  Your name is synonymous with your character.  Make sure the mention of your name makes someone smile and not roll their eyes in disgust.

 I am all for the First Amendment:

 I don't want speech banned no matter how offensive.

I don't want books like To Kill a Mockingbird banned.

 I want people to hold tight to the constitutional freedoms the founding fathers framed and fought for, which is the right to free speech.

And the only way we will is if we are tireless and brave enough to educate our children about their role as the next generation.

I hope we can teach them to be more thoughtful, kinder, more empathetic people. 

If not, we will have failed in our responsibility to teach them to be verbally articulate, higher level thinkers, and instead, we can look forward to urbane, shock-jocks who will continue to perpetuate and advocate the verbal ruin of us all. 

Don't let it happen!  Speak eloquent truth to power today and every day. 

Or our words will surely come back to bite us!

Most sincerely,


Work cited:

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. HarperPerennial, 1961, 2001.


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