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Ethical Language?

  1. Aug 25, 2004 #1
    "Ethical" Language?

    1. Why is it unethical to use vulgarity?
    2. Why is it polite to refrain from using vulgarity?
    3. Is this an ethics issue?

    Vulgarity is an enigma. The English language is awash in vulgar terms that are frequently and superfluously used, yet there are rules which prohibit such language from being used in many public situations. Some communities actually have laws which prohibit such speech, and fines may be imposed on individuals who choose to use such language. Yet, vulgarity is so commonplace these laws are almost never enforced. Why is this? I would appreciate it if someone would offer some additional insight.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 25, 2004 #2


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    Staff: Mentor

    Words have meanings and some of those meanings have emotional or just plain negative content/connotation. Using such words flippantly can be derogatory or uncomfortable to people hearing them.
  4. Aug 25, 2004 #3
    I dissagree with your suggestion that vulgar words have meanings that provoke emotional or negative connotations. Most vulgar words have a non-vulgar word or words which have essentially the same definition. The fact that the definition of any vulgar word is always essentially unoffensive is a sign that it is not their meaning which is offensive, but instead something else.

    I propose that the negative connotations created by vulgar words are entirely placed their by the listener, and have little or no basis in their meaning at all. This offense taken is subjective, random, illogical and generally indefensible.

    Since there is no logical reason why someone should be offended by a word whose meaning is unoffensive, there is no ethical delima involved in the use of vulgar language. On the other hand, it is still impolite, since politeness makes no requirement that something be logical.

    PS: Yes, I'm awfully bored at work :tongue2:
    Last edited: Aug 25, 2004
  5. Aug 25, 2004 #4


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    Fair enough - its the connotation, not the meaning - unless the connotation is part of the meaning...


    2a. An idea or meaning suggested by or associated with a word or thing:
    2b. The set of associations implied by a word in addition to its literal meaning.

    I don't think the connotation can really be separated from the literal meaning. Connotation is an extremely important part of language.
    Last edited: Aug 25, 2004
  6. Aug 25, 2004 #5
    Maybe my wording was inadequate then. In fact, I'll retry my original statement, due to it being inadequate. (Of course vulgar words can have some negative connotation, i'm trying to suggest they don't have as much as is taken). I try again:

    I believe that the offense taken from a vulgar word is beyond what should be taken due the word's meaning, connotation, or even implication. This offense is largely a pre-programmed reaction by the listener dictated by rules that society has laid down which have no logical basis. The important point is how if the words meaning is expressed in any other words - and yet the intent of the meaning is kept the same - it is no longer "vulgar." It could be there was a time when this wasn't the case, but it is now.

    Unfortunately I've used up my ability to be vague and must be just a little impolite. Hopefully this wont be too much so:

    Let's say I say to someone one of these two things:

    1) F*** off!
    2) Die off!

    Which meaning is more offensive? Obviously the second. In the first, I'm trying to be insulting, but I'm also very vague. I could mean that they should go have sex (or some variation of it). That they should go away. I'm obviously suggesting I dislike them or their presence.

    But in the second, I am making it clear that I would rather see that person dead than alive. Clearly that is even more negative an implication than the first. If vulgarity had to do with the meaning or connotation of the words, shouldn't the second be considered more vulgar than the first?

    And yet, the first would be considered more vulgar than the second.

    Who decides what words are vulgar? I think Kafka would have something to say about that.

    Another question is, how long can you have a discussion about this on a message board before an impolite someone pops in and ruins everything?
  7. Aug 25, 2004 #6
    I agree with the negative connotation associated with vulgar words; this does provide a good explanation for why vulgarity is considered impolite. When the word "s**t" is uttered, for instance, something not-so-pleasant does appear in the mind. However, the word "feces," which means the same thing, is not really considered vulgar, nor does it seem to produce the same reaction. Is it an arbitrary cultural decision to designate some words as vulgar and others not, perhaps not based on meaning or connotation, but on reaction? Sort of what Locrian was saying:

    Perhaps the pre-programmed reaction is something that comes from observing social situations? I imagine a child watching "Nip/Tuck" for instance, picking up some words, then seeing how those words affect the other person. Now, the child does not know the meaning of the word, or its connotation, yet the child does know that its use produces a negative reaction in a listener.

    Given that the child learns the vulgar words at such an age that the words are simply sounds that produce reactions, would it be fair to say that the acceptance of the use of vulgarity begins at a young age? And that the primary motivation for using vulgarity is to produce negative reactions?
  8. Aug 25, 2004 #7
    This is an interesting example. I distincltly remember the time a 2 year old at the family Thanksgiving dinner heard a word on tv, said it back, and was suprised to find the entire room staring at her. She immediately bellowed it out several more times loudly before chastised. It seems to me children do this to get attention - and a few adults as well. These people using the word are preying upon people's belief that the words are intrisically bad somehow.

    There are lots of cases where this doesen't occur, though. Many people have conversations with each other all the time and use vulgar words constantly without anyone taking any offense. To them the words are just words and, although they can be used offensively, they aren't granted some mystic property of simply being offensive.

    By the way, the word s**t and feces bring up the exact same image in my mind. I don't find either less pleasant than the other... though I find the first more flexible in conversation :wink:

    It might seem strange to some that I would make so many posts on this topic. To me, though, this wierd superstitious belief some have that words are simply "bad" regardless of connotation, meaning or implication is totally absurd. If culture deems them impolite... well, fine, culture is wierd sometimes. However, the fact some people imply a moral (or ethical, as the thread states) attribute to someone who does or does not use them (regardless of how they are used) is just another indication of how morally backwards our society sometimes is.
  9. Aug 25, 2004 #8
    I think its a label of social status rather than moral or ethical that is attached to the useage of these "bad" words, simply a different language associated with a different social group.

    This explains why some people dont want to be associated with these words, To them it places them higher on the social ladder.

    For the same reason for instance, pleople dont walk naked in the streeds while its bloody hot outside and wearing anything other than shoes has no logical function what so ever, same goes for farting, belching, spitting and so forth.....all social status.

    Also the reason why parents dont accept these words from their children, Its an evolutionary advantage for you to make sure your children do well and teaching them the right social trinks (rediculous or not) will improve their social status and eventual fitness in society. The fun part is that parents usually dont consiously do this for this reason but because its part of their program :biggrin:
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