The Social Construction of Offensive Words

Warning: The post you are about to read is about offensive words. It seeks to throw a spotlight on the social construction of offensive language, and illustrate how society’s interpretation of those words gives them power. In the course of this essay, some words you may find offensive may be used. And finally, any link that takes you to George Carlin will contain an entire dictionary of offensive words. Enter with caution.

Not much is sweeter to a mother’s ear than hearing her baby babble his or her first words. All of my children began their verbal era with the expected “coo” and “mamamamamamamama” and “dadadada”, but it’s been my 4 year old, Cristopher, who has upped the verbal ante in our house. Cristopher loves words and stories and music. He spoke his first recognizable sentences at just before two years old (“Grandpa, is the soup deeee-licious?”) and loves to “tell us stories with his mouth” which means he creates stories instead of just reading them from a book. But recently, Cristopher has been making up his own words, which is cute, and funny, and confusing, at least for a little while.

Most of what Cristopher makes up is gibberish, or substitutions for other words. But the most recent, and consistent word creation had me concerned, at first, until I realized a very important thing: his reality is not my reality; his history is not my history. We have different perspectives, even though we are mother and son.

The word started as “honkachew.” He would randomly use the word in sentences and I would repeat it back to him to reinforce that his words are important.

“Mama, honkachew.”

“Um, honkachew, Cristopher,” and I would go back to whatever I was doing. I couldn’t figure out a pattern in the word use, nor what it meant, and just assumed it was another of the dozens of phrases that Cristopher created.

And then a few weeks ago, the word changed to “honka” and I thought he was being funny and imitating one of his trucks honking. I didn’t try to correct him, and again, I would repeat the word back to him. And then about two weeks ago, the word changed once again. This time, the word was “honky.”

If you didn’t grow up in American culture, or maybe you didn’t grow up in the age of American culture I did, the term “honky” might not mean much to you. But in my American culture, and everyone’s American culture is different, by the way, the term “honky” is offensive to some. It’s largely used as a derogatory term for Caucasians.

As soon as Cristopher began using “honky,” I tried to correct him and change it back to “honka.” I was mortified that someone might think I had taught him that word, and was worried that he might say it at school. I could only imagine the backlash that would ensue if the child of a Sociology instructor who teaches the sociology of Ethnicity and Nationalism and studies race relations, shows up at preschool saying “honky” to random people. I was worried, and because of that worry, I didn’t much care what the word meant to him.

But then a few days ago, a not-so-funny thing happened: Cristopher had an issue with someone else, and his feelings got hurt because of the interaction. When he found me a few minutes later, I saw the look on his face and knew he needed me to comfort him. But it’s difficult for almost everyone I’ve met to say, “I need comfort,” or, “I need a hug,” or, “please hold me,” and the same has become true for Cristopher. Instead of asking for a hug, he held out his arms and quietly said, “Mama, honky.”

Several realizations hit me at the same time when Cristopher said, “Mama, honky.” First, I realized we were from different cultures, and in his culture, “honky” means love and comfort from your mother. Second, I realized that the meaning of words is what we create the meaning to be. Third, I realized, once again, how important it is to understand that your own culture is not everyone’s culture. And fourth, I realized, again, how easy it is to have misunderstandings between people and cultures, even with words that you never considered to be offensive or confusing in your own culture. Paul De Man (1973) examined this area of misunderstanding through a deconstructionist analysis of what was arguably the first television show to attempt to highlight the ridiculousness of bigotry and bigoted terms, All in the Family. DeMan argued that phrases and terms can be misinterpreted based, not only on literal or figurative interpretation, but also on the intent of the speaker.

Language is socially constructed. We create language both verbally and in symbols that the culture collectively gives meaning to, and then those words have power. Some words have more power than others. One of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits illustrated the power of offensive words, and the word “honky” nearly 40 years ago and George Carlin created an entire career out of examining “dirty, filthy, foul, vile, vulgar,” words and language because some words are so powerful.

Carlin made an astute observation about offensive words: everyone’s idea of what is offensive is different, and changes based on context. Carlin and DeMan argue essentially the same idea about language: words can be spoken either figuratively or literally, and must be considered in context, and unspoken by both but implied, one’s culture must be considered when fully understanding language.

The power of words changes over time, depending on how each culture views those words and constructs the power of those words. What was offensive to some in 1971, when All in the Family aired it’s first episode, is common today, but at the time, the words of the show were so offensive, a disclaimer was tacked on to each episode that stated, “The program you are about to see is All in the Family. It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show, in a mature fashion, just how absurd they are.”

We take much out of context and meaning when we hear what we perceive as offensive words, and the intent of the speaker often is lost. Sometimes, the intent of the speaker is all too clear, and maybe we should be offended. But here’s the deal: reading words and phrases and hearing people speak without understanding their culture and meaning, examining their intent, is a narrow, but very straight path to bigger misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and disconnect with those around us.

I almost let my own experience and history negatively taint my understanding of my son’s culture, but instead I stopped, and listened, saw his intent, considered his history, and hugged him instead.

For a behind the scenes history about Saturday Night Live’s Word Association skit, click here.