Language and Thinking
  • Insults

    The opposite of polite talk is insulting talk. Insults are names and attributions designed to hurt others, to arouse anger and ultimately to start fights. Children are often taught:” Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” While the intention is to alleviate some of the suffering a child feels when others hurl insults, the statement is not true. “Names” can be harmful and are often remembered for years; whereas pleasant experiences are forgotten.

    You could ask why insults are potent as expressions of aggression and as triggers for fights. Proud males, for example, so reject insults that a scrappy fight, a formal duel, or a declaration of war follows insult. If you are a skilled peace maker, you learned to deflect insults and inhibit anger. But even the most skilled pacifist will still be hurt by insults and will require strategies of self-defense that do not depend on anger or revenge.

    An important meaning of an insult is: ”I don’t like you and intend to do you harm.”

    The term “profanity” originated with religious authorities to describe words and expressions not approved by the church. Blasphemous language opposes the authority of the church. Insults are often expressed with profanity, using words and gesture that are rude and disrespectful. Synonyms for profane speech are cussing cursing, swearing, obscenity, dirty words. Words that refer to the anus, feces and sexual organs are often used as insults. Disrespectful words that refer to ethnic origins, religion, and occupation are also used as insults. Referring to people as animals with low status is insulting.

    Offensive and Taboo Words

    The meaning of every word is context dependent and every local group has rules about good words and bad words. Social status determines the tolerance for offensive words. High status usually requires strict language discipline; any deviation from polite speech will lead to rejection. If you are a stranger entering a new group, it is a good idea to learn and use polite speech, avoiding words that would offend.

    Fuck is the most used and most versatile English swear word, used as a noun, verb, adjective and adverb. The verb, fuck, refers to sexual intercourse. Even polite girls in the heat of passion will say “fuck me” to their lover, but in other contexts may never use the word. I have occasionally kept the company of working men who often say fuck; the frequency of fuck in their conversations can be as high as every third word. Most of the fuck words are simply part of the prosody of their languages, but there is an underlying hostility to the whole approach to communication. One man who becomes annoyed with another will shout “fuck you” with his index finger raised, an obvious insult. He may walk away with a disgusted look, repeating fuck many times as he disappears into the distance. Fuck is not acceptable in polite conversation and is taboo in respectable newspapers and on television.

    Some taboo words describe objects of disgust that are not mentioned in polite talk: feces, urine, vomit, menstrual blood, pus are high on the list of disgusting things. Street words for sexual parts and acts are usually taboo, even when proper terms are seldom used and casual terms are common and numerous. Ethnic slurs express the human tendency to discriminate against others that are different.

    Discrimination is multifaceted, begins with insults and extends into fights which are sometimes lethal.

    One reason to reject vulgar words in civil society is to suppress the tendency to fight and kill.

    You could argue that trading insults is a substitute for actual fighting and may be permissible, but the tendency for verbal battles to escalate is real and dangerous.

    • Dr. Gislason wrote: "In this brief reflection I describe some basic truths about languages that are aspects of human nature most likely to endure. I feature storytelling and selftalk as the two most important features of the human use of language. I consider how languages fit in the larger scheme of intelligence and human interactions. Interesting challenges emerge when language is used to describe itself. Spoken language is an innate ability of humans that emerges in all human groups. Spoken language is the key to interaction among humans. There are several thousand languages in human groups that enhance group cohesion and at the same time separate groups that cannot communicate. I trace the evolution of sound communication from animals who have lived on earth for hundreds of millions of years to computer programming that uses condensed forms of cryptic languages that are received and expressed by electronic circuits."

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      Human Nature
      The Good Person
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      The Sound of Music
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      Language and Thinking
      I and Thou
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      Neuroscience Notes
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      The author is Stephen Gislason and the publisher is Persona Digital Books.