In 1972, the late great George Carlin introduced his list of the Seven Words You Can’t Say On TV. Clearly, George was talking about a time before cable and specialty stations because many of the seven words are heard often now. I’ll not list the words but will suggest you have a look at this link if you are not familiar with the list.
This past week Canada’s national broadcaster, the CBC, released a list of Words and phrases you may want to think twice about using. Not to be confused with Carlin’s septet of curse words, the CBC’s list is made up of everyday sayings. So why should we think twice about using them? It all has to do with the origin of the word or phrase, and sometimes these origins are pretty obscure.
How can a person with no knowledge of the etymology of the word possibly know it may be hurtful to others?
One example is the phrase grandfathered in. This is a common term to refer to one’s ability to do something banned based on the fact they come by it prior to it being deemed verboten. Or as the CBC explains a” business being exempt from new rules and (that) continues operating as is”. Again, according to the CBC’s article, this dates back to a 19th-century policy called the “grandfather clause,” which indirectly stopped Black Americans from voting by limiting eligibility to only those whose ancestors could vote.
“There are no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad intentions, and wooooords”.
Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but what the CBC piece neglects to take into consideration, is the concept of intention. How can a person with no knowledge of the etymology of the word possibly know it may be hurtful to others? To once again cite George Carlin, a self-professed lover of words, “There are no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad intentions, and wooooords”.
One person mentioned in the CBC article is Julie Cashman, a member of the disability community and co-chair of the Consumer Action Committee, which advocates for individuals with disabilities. Her gripe is the word brainstorm that could be insensitive to those who have brain injuries or are neurodiverse, C’mon…really?
… the word brainstorm that could be insensitive to those who have brain injuries or are neurodiverse, C’mon…really?
But my favourite bugaboo – hope that doesn’t offend any mosquitos – is the word gyp. My grandfather was a veteran of the First World War. Like many soldiers, he returned with several shards of shrapnel in his leg. Often this would cause him a twinge of pain or discomfort causing him to say “my leg is giving me some gyp today”. According to Merriam-Webster, the origin is “British, informal: to cause (someone) pain”. The folks at the CBC would have us believe the word actually comes from Gypsy and is therefore potentially offensive to Roma.
It’s time to take Carlin’s advice and consider the intent of the person using the word, not merely the word.