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Thoughts on 'bad language'

What follows is an excerpt from a recent exchange. The identity of my correspondent remains private.


What do you think about bad language? Do you ever use it? Are you offended by it?

Before I answer your questions, I need to comment on human language in general. I consider it a medium of communication and thus assess it on the basis of its effectiveness. In this sense, “bad language” is one that fails at communicating the desired meaning. We can discuss whether “bad” is the correct description instead of terms like “inaccurate”, “confusing”, etc., though I think that is beside the point. What matters to me is whether language gets the job done; whether it communicates what is intended without distractions.

Keep this in mind as I will return to it later.

I do understand that by “bad language” you refer to profanity, which involves a discussion on normativity or propriety: what is supposed to be normal, else what is considered appropriate and what isn’t. In turn, this entails a discussion on contextuality: propriety in light of the case’s particularities.

In English, we have phrases like “fuck off”. Depending on the situation, it is profane. If a comedian utters it as part of their act, it will likely incite laughter: people will find it funny regardless of what they think about the phrase in general, such as not finding it amusing by default. If it is expressed amid a heated argument, it will be taken as a sign of aggression. And so on. The context matters.

Language is not a mere sequence of words or signs or patterns with an objective meaning. Communication involves a sender and a recipient. In human terms, we have more than one subject. Whatever meaning is a function of interpretation, coordinated or not. The dynamic between subjects is key. If, for example, your best friend tells an uninspired joke and you respond with “fuck off”, they will not be offended—you are buddies and don’t take each other’s remarks personally. Though the same action will likely offend a stranger. Again, context matters.

We can already sense how it is futile to classify words or phrases into “good” and “bad” without accounting for the constitution of the case. If we do that, we are simply drawing arbitrary delineations, based on some misplaced sense of propriety. Put simply, if someone strongly believes that anything involving the word “fuck” counts as bad language, then they should never laugh at a smart joke and should always take offence at the utterance of that word, even if it comes from their best friend. This tells us more about the person’s expectations than the word itself. How can a combination of letters and the sound they make be inherently wrong per se? It is considered wrong in light of the person’s (or group’s) beliefs and expectations. Whether those beliefs are justifiable is another discussion: all we are testing right now is whether language can be inherently bad.

Put differently, whatever counts as “bad language” attains that quality extrinsically and dynamically. There is nothing in the nature of the word itself which would render it inappropriate despite the context. We can even take it a step further and argue that even the definition of a word is contingent on its application: just consider how synonyms of “cat” and “rooster” are used in English to refer to human genitals. Those uses may be described as vulgar or slang, though my point remains the same: context matters.

Then we have to consider euphemisms: “good language” that obfuscates some fact or misrepresents a state of affairs. For instance, the world of politics is filled with euphemisms. In Europe, the policies that involved the mass impoverishment of the population in the post-2008 financial crisis were described as part of a programme of “austerity”. There is nothing offensive about the word and it even has a virtuous tone to it, as an austere lifestyle is devoid of sin or whatnot. Yet in the context of the political reality, this seemingly innocuous word concealed the repulsive face of a brutal, albeit superficially polite, regime. Did those at the receiving end of austerity find any consolation in the fact that the authorities employed “good language” in pursuit of their stratagems? If the example with austerity does not work for you, think how offensive warfare is dishonestly framed as part of homeland security or is described as righteous in light of the preservation of some lofty value like “the fight against terrorism” or “the respect for human rights”. The euphemism makes it sounds better, thought it really isn’t.

As another example of seemingly neutral terms causing trouble, think about the gender pronouns “he” and “she”. If a person identifies as a “she” yet you insist on calling her a “he” you are misgendering and thus mistreating her. Is the pronoun “he” bad language in itself? No. Is it bad because of how it is used in this context? Yes.

In light of the aforementioned, we can claim that “good language” is not necessarily good. We have to account for (i) language as a medium of communication, and (ii) the contextual significance of words:

  1. Given how language is a medium of communication, if the applied verbiage is misleading then it actually is bad language: it does not convey meaning effectively, is distracting, and can cause confusion. Again, you can replace “bad” with “inaccurate” or whatever, though I am not interested in that inquiry right now: I want you to understand the bigger picture of my argument which, in the interest of brevity, involves a simplistic binary of “good VS bad” language. The intent of this schematic representation is to highlight the fact that these analytical extremes are worthless without reference to the criterion being used and without consideration of the case in which the language is made manifest.
  2. Words acquire meaning through their use and in light of the applicable intersubjective magnitude. It matters greatly who is saying what and to whom. An otherwise innocuous word may describe something nasty, just as a generally vulgar expression can convey well-meaning thoughts. We need to know more about the dynamic between those involved before passing judgement. More broadly, it is prudent to avoid the pitfalls of decontextualisation and instead seek to learn how a state of affairs is substantiated.

I do not think that profanity is bad per se. My view is necessarily nuanced: it really depends on the specifics. As for whether I get offended by language, be it good or bad, the answer is negative. I might think that the person is not communicating as effectively as they could, but I will not feel attacked by their vocabulary.

On the topic of getting offended or, more broadly, internalising other people’s thoughts, I have learnt to blot out such influences: they can’t affect me any more. This is somewhat related to what I talked about in a recent presentation about expectations, rules, and role-playing: https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-05-03-expectations-rules-roles/. Though you don’t have to check that. I think what I wrote here is enough for our purposes.

This is not to say that you are free to use whatever phrases you want on the premise that “it is all arbitrary, anyway”. Such is the thinking of a naive relativist. As I also noted in the link I referenced above, being pedantic in the wrong context is the sign of foolishness. Be mindful of the situation, which necessarily requires you to think about how you are a factor in the given case and what that entails.