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Strolling through the landmines of language is a delicate process
Amy Adams plays a linguist attempting to communicate with aliens in a spaceship (shown in the distance to her left) in the new film "Arrival," which poses interesting questions about language and communication. - photo by Chris Hicks
Language has been on my mind quite a bit lately. And I suspect Im not alone.

Its been a topic of conversation on talk radio, its been the subject of commentary on the web and its a running theme in the new movie Arrival.

And if weve learned anything from the recent election cycle, its that words can be loaded with landmines and the process of traversing them is delicate. Its better to enter the fray thoughtfully and to be circumspect in the language we use.

Personally, I find it especially disturbing that even in light of overwhelming evidence that the words we use can be hurtful, hateful and damaging, intentionally or unintentionally, so many people dont seem to think that using profanity and vulgarity to generally express themselves is any big deal.

In the past, the profanities weve heard uttered by politicians have mostly been caught unintentionally on hot microphones. Or from sports figures because you had seats directly behind the bench. And from Hollywood stars in outtakes that were never intended for the general public.

Not anymore, of course.

In fact, many of our most popular entertainers consider it some kind of badge of honor when they can slip offensive language into their movies and TV shows. Hence the popularity of subscription cable television programs where the F-word is so redundantly used as an adjective, noun, pronoun, verb, adverb and every other form of grammar, that some of us would like to send each Hollywood filmmaker a thesaurus.

Right now, I suspect, before even finishing this column, some internet trolls out there are already sharpening their metaphorical knives to send off sharp comments accusing me of being a prig or a prude for even bringing this up.

Everyone seems to agree that its not cool to use pejorative terms for classes and cultures, or to toss off insulting racial slurs, or crude slang for various private body parts or anything else that maligns or diminishes or dismisses any particular segment of the human family. (Well, everyone except perhaps those aforementioned angry internet yowlers.)

But what about just swearing, cussing, using expletives, blaspheming or generally being obscene or profane, whether in rage or off-the-cuff?

Civility in the public square is in decline, but its also in decline in the grocery store and at family reunions.

And Im not just talking about trying to protect children from such language. There was a time, and it doesnt seem so long ago, when adults aspired to have a touch of class, to rise above such language, to reach for the stars as they spoke instead of groveling in the mud.

Why, for example, does Hollywood feel that every PG-13 movie must use the F-word at least once? Is this in the contract? Is there really a feeling that it will diminish the audience if it gets out that the F-word is not in a particular film? Are there walkouts when that word doesnt show up by the halfway mark in a PG-13 movie?

This came to mind once again with Arrival, where it seems particularly unnecessary given the plot. This sci-fi thriller is about the efforts made by various governments to communicate with aliens that have landed spaceships all around the world. Its about words, language, communication. Its about the discovery of a means of conveying thoughts that is new to humans, and its about learning how to use it productively so that things wont go awry due to misinterpretations.

Theres a lot of discussion in Arrival about language in general and specifically how words can be good or bad, depending on how theyre used. They talk about how its important to be certain the nuance of your wording conveys the meaning you intend. Which is something thats even more difficult in written terms than it is verbally, a lesson that has to be learned by the scientists, politicians and soldiers, and which the central character, a linguist (Amy Adams), is trying to demonstrate before its too late.

So it was a surprise to me that fairly early on in this movie, someone has to drop the F-bomb. And its another case of the persons face not being on camera, so it may have been added as an afterthought.

Im picturing the director working with the editor to assemble all the footage and at some point realizing that horrors! they forgot to insert that word. Hey, no problem, just loop it in later with audio.

Recently, during a radio interview, Stephen Colbert was talking about how much more freedom he had with his election night TV special since it was on pay cable Showtime rather than network TV CBS. And how did he plan to use this freedom? With foul language that is prohibited by network television. In fact, a profanity was in the title of that special and he and the host held it up as a source of pride.

In another radio segment, a linguist offered a commentary about how difficult it is for journalists to accurately quote public figures when they use profanity, and he pointed out that swear words lose their impact if they are no longer taboo, and therefore civility in public discourse is preferable. But its his reasoning thats noteworthy here: civility is preferable so that we can preserve the impact of swearing.

Right. But if there really are any verbal taboos anymore, you wouldnt know it by the TV shows and movies being gobbled up by the general public, and, yes, also by our children.

Once, as a collective society, we aspired to a touch of class; now we aspire to a touch of crass.
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