Bad Words?

The other day I stumbled across a friend’s post: she referred to a list of “bad words” that was developed by Google. That team has recently developed a “What do you love?” service to return all kinds of categories of information on individual words or phrases; when you type in one of the “bad” words on the list it returns a result based on the subject of “kittens”. I have to admit I’m rather unimpressed by the task, but I was interested in the list.

My perspective is there’s no such thing as a “bad” word. Every word is intended to communicate something: it exists because, at some point, there was a reason it was needed. Whether or not a person wants to communicate that, in today’s time and place, is up to them. There are some words I choose to use very infrequently: but it is because I rarely feel the need to converse about particular subjects. If I’m in a situation where I feel particular words are warranted, I do not hesitate to use them.

Since Google defines much of the cyber-world as far as cultural references are concerned, I wanted to explore this further. I’m not a big fan of censorship, so I don’t like categorizing words into “good” and “bad”. Actually, Google is supposed to just observe cultural references: as one of the top search engines, Google (theoretically) just observes what is out in the world on the web and processes the content at lightning speed. Yet as we all know (from either postmodern theory or sub-nuclear physics), one cannot observe something without affecting it. I’m sure they would argue that they have simply compiled a list of “bad words” and have used them in their software; they have not published the list at all. Yet their code is open, and so it is not difficult to find the list. Whether they intend to or not, they are adding to our cultural matrix on the subject of “bad words”.

The fact that there were so many of them should not have surprised me. I guess I wish they’d used pattern matching to find anything including the letters “fuck”, since over 80 of the 450 words include some variation of that sequence. Most of them relate to sexuality in some form or other; I was surprised there were not more racial epithets. A lot of them are references (in some obscure way) to homosexuality: the acts or the persons. That so many of the “bad words” in our culture are references to my community and our ways of showing love says a lot about our acceptance. When someone asks me whether it is still really necessary to proclaim all that civil rights stuff with respect to queer culture, I should just show them this list.

Some of the actual words interested me as well, beyond the simple existence of the list. We talk about some of these in our “Let’s Start with Words” presentation for the Pride Network of the Government of Ontario. I was interested to see that “dyke” and “fag” are both considered unmentionable; I have friends who would put themselves in those categories. They “self-identify” with such terms. The words are examples of what we call “reclaimed words”: words that were once used pejoratively, but which have since been purposefully used in a more positive light. I was pleased to see that “queer” is not on the list (although it might be because “queer” is more an adjective than a noun/verb) because that’s what I call myself. I still have a problem with words like “fag” because I was taunted as a child with it (before I even knew what it meant). Hopefully within a generation or two such words will no longer be necessary, at least as far as the gay (queer) community is concerned. But as long as we keep lists like these, I’m not sure we’ll ever get past the concept of “bad” words.

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