Sunday, December 02, 2007

Why the F-bomb is Sexist Verbal Violence

One of the fundamental principles of modern linguistics is that there is only an arbitrary connection between a word and what it signifies. It is a matter of social convention that the f-bomb means what it means and fudge means “To fit together or adjust in a clumsy, makeshift, or dishonest manner” (OED). So Pirate Jimmy is right to say that the power of the f-bomb is granted by the audience—it is social convention (the word-meaning association and the taboo), not the inherent nature of the word itself, that generates its power.

Yet this fact does nothing to diminish the reality of the f-bomb’s verbal violence. The fact that the word-meaning association is arbitrary means only that it could theoretically be changed; one can imagine a world where it was different. Arbitrariness does not mean that it is in fact in our power to change it. As speakers of English (or any language), we enter into a linguistic world that we had no hand in creating, and which we have almost no power over. Even though the word-meaning association was established arbitrarily, it is now established. I can no more drain the f-bomb of its power in the social sphere than I can abolish racism by willing the n-word to mean “dear brother.”

When a speaker deploys the f-bomb, he invokes a preexisting metaphor, one that depends upon a sexist and violent view of the world. Sometimes he does it because he is sexist and violent; most of the time, he does it simply because the metaphor is taboo, and he lends his words power by violating the taboo.

I can’t say it any better than Octavio Paz, and I offer this clumsy translation (with help from babelfish) of a part of his essay. In some places, I have changed forms of chingar to the equivalent form of the f-bomb.

But the plurality of meanings [of chingar] does not prevent the aggression idea (in all its degrees, from the simple sense of “make uncomfortable” . . . to the senses “to violate,” “to tear” and “to kill”) from always appearing as the ultimate meaning. The verb denotes violence, to leave the self and penetrate another by force. And also, to hurt, to tear, to violate (whether bodies, souls, or objects), to destroy. When something is broken, we say: “se chinga [It’s f---ed up]”. . . . The idea of "to break" and "to open" reappears in almost all the expressions. The word has a tinge of sexuality, but it is not synonymous with the sexual act; it is possible to chingar a woman without having it. And when the sexual act is alluded to, the sense of violation or deceit lends a particular shade to it. The one who [f---s] never does so with the consent of the [f----ed] one. In sum, to chingar is to do violence to another. It is a masculine, active, cruel verb: it stings, it hurts, it tears, it stains. And it causes a bitter, resented satisfaction in the one who does it. The [f---ed] thing is the passive, the inert and open thing, as opposed to that which [f---s], which is active, aggressive and closed. Chingón is the male, the one that opens. The chingada one, the female, the pure passivity, defenseless before the outside. The relation between the two is violent, determined by the cynical power of the first and impotence of the other. The violation idea darkly governs all the meanings.


Pirate Jimmy said...

It is true that we can't change society's perception of a word, but I can say fuck comfortably because I don't necessarily care what society thinks of the word, it's what I think of the word. I can change that, whenever the fuck I want.

Pirate Jimmy said...

Also, the word "chingar," though from that guy's description can accurately be described as the equivalent of "fuck," is not a direct translation. At least not as described by that dude. Specifically the statement you placed in bold cannot be accurately made about the f-bomb. Two people can fuck with mutual consent. It happens when two people fuck each other. A girl can fuck a guy just as easily as a guy can fuck a girl. In english, words have no gender. So half of that guy's argument is invalid. And, on a side note, I possibly have a different view on sexism than you and maybe others. My initial reaction is to consider this statement - "Chingón is the male, the one that opens. The chingada one, the female, the pure passivity, defenseless before the outside" - to be extremely sexist. Mostly because of my bias against languages with gender-specific words.

Special K said...

I think you can say the word so easily in part because you are a male. I feel you may change your mind if you were to be raped.

And maybe because of my bias toward languages and cultures with gender-specific words (esp. spanish), I can't help but see the power held in the ch-word. The inherent power in the action verb chingar is why so many latino men have homosexual sex and brag about it to their friends. It actually makes them MORE male if they can use their power as the chingón to humiliate the male chingado.

Pirate Jimmy said...

Another interesting statement I'd like to examine: "I can no more drain the f-bomb of its power in the social sphere than I can abolish racism by willing the n-word to mean 'dear brother.' "

This statement is not entirely... there's a word for it that I can't think of... but it's not entirely correlated, I guess. Let me explain.

Draining the f-bomb of its power is not analogous to abolishing racism by changing the meaning of the n-word. I'd suggest maybe that abolishing racism by changing the meaning of the n-word would be more similar to eliminating sexual violence by changing the meaning of the n-word. Both are, of course, impossible, since the words have no controlling say in the actions of men.

However, one can in fact drain power from the f-bomb; just as the average american black community has drained power from the n-word amongst that community. If everyone were to start using the f-bomb, it's meaning would be drained. The more it occurs the less harsh it becomes and eventually it has only a fraction of the power it used to. Imagine for a moment the movie Gone with the Wind. How shocking was it to include the lines "Quite frankly my dear, I don't give a damn." How shocking would that be in a modern movie? Why did that change occur? Did damn become less powerful because people feared the word and reserved its use for only special occasions? Or did damn become less powerful because people use the word more frequently now? How powerful was the word when it was just another word for condemn? What gave it power in the first place? I don't study etymology, but I bet the church had something to do with damn becoming a powerful word in the first place.

Pirate Jimmy said...

typo- 3rd paragraph, 6th line: "n-word" = "f-bomb"

Pirate Jimmy said...

Also, quickly perusing the ultimate arbiter, the Urban Dictionary, the most popular list of definitions does not contain anything related to sexual violence. The closest is definition 4 ("to procreate"). You may both be confusing "chingar" with "fuck" too easily. Or possibly using an antiquated definition, most likely due to lack of use and a disconnection from the word.

1. fuck
11549 up, 1774 down

1. The universally recognized "F word"
2. N. Implying complete and utter confusion
3. N. a really stupid person
4. V. To procreate
5. adj. Can be used to modify any word for more passion
6. Int. Expresses disgust
7. Int. Expresses complete suprise and joy
8. adv. Can be used to make a command more urgent

1. I do not accept the "F word" as your name
2. What in the fuck?
3. You stupid fuck!
4. I sugest we go fuck in your mothers bed while eating crackers and petting a cat name mittens!
5. This fucking guy was so fucking weird. He asked me if I was fucking insane.
6. Aw, FUCK!!
7. Holy fuck! You guys rock!
8. Just fucking jump before I fucking kick you in the balls!

Pirate Jimmy said...

Not everyone that uses the word is disillusioned by it.

Here's a tangent: one of my problems with the church is it's disconnection with the rest of society. We are supposed to live in the world, not of it. I think it's possible to interpret that as: "say fuck, don't rape people."

That was mostly a joke, but you get the point I'm trying to make by it... maybe.

Special K said...

While I still cringe every time I read the f-word (text has more power with me than speech), I'd hardly say I'm far removed from it. I hear it every day countless times from kids who just use it to take up space in their sentences. For them it is often meaningless and accepted. And whether or not I need to change my antiquated view of the word via repeated usage doesn't change the fact that I grew up understanding the violently sexist meaning of the word. For others to demand I accept the casual usage of a long-hated word is like me demanding to be able to use the n-word because I have some black friends and I don't mean it in a degrading, power-wielding way. I think we should all respect the meanings of words that others have grown up with, even if it means censoring our thoughts occasionally.

Special K said...

By the way, though, I like these dialogues, so please don't think I'm hating on you.

Special K said...

I had a friend who always said "If everyone agrees with me all the time, I need to find new friends!"

Pirate Jimmy said...

Haha, don't worry. I don't believe you to even be capable of hate. And I do agree, different opinions are what make discussions interesting.