Location: Tulsa, Oklahoma, Tonga

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Epithetically yours

Michael Bérubé reasonably proposes that we discard epithets and slurs that describe a person's capacity in favor of terms that describe performance. He's absolutely right. "Idiot," "moron," "imbecile," and other like words carry historical freight that has nothing to do with poor judgment or poor performance.

On the other hand, Bérubé follows his suggestion by arguing in favor of using words like "asshole" and "jackass"-- both of which mark a status, rather than performance.

Still, he has a good point, and his "asshole" illustration warmed my heart.

When I was very young-- probably around six years old-- I sternly denounced a playmate by describing him as a "son-of-a-bitch." In the mid-1950s, speech of this variety could stop dinner table conversation instantaneously. My parents glanced at my sister and brothers, and my father gently set his fork down on his plate, the prepared bite of food still on the tines.

"You must NEVER use that term again. It is a horrible thing to say, and I do not want to hear it from anyone here ever again.

"Likewise, you must NEVER use the word 'bastard'. That's another detestable word.

"Both 'son-of-a-bitch' and 'bastard' reflect upon someone's mother. If you are angry with someone, deal with that person-- not that person's mother. The mother is not in your disagreement.

"You may, however, call that person an asshole. Although the word is hard and angry, we all have assholes; each of us can be reduced to asshole level at times; and they are necessary. We'd die without assholes."

Well, I trusted my father completely, and never used the forbidden words again.

And when I got in deeeeep trouble at school for calling a classmate an asshole, my father stood up for me in front of the principal.

What a great example. I miss him.