Saturday, February 10, 2018

Fill in the Blank: Combating Vulgarity with Vocabulary

You’re holding an ordinary conversation with your best friend. You’re chatting along and then all of a sudden….

Your mind just…blanks.

On one stinking ordinary word. That for the life of you, you can’t seem to spit out.

You stare at your friend in a confused manner. You sss-sstutt-er as your mouth finally figures out that your brain has had a temporary shut-down. You snap your fingers, trying to get your scrambling brain cells back into order.

At best, it turns into a game of charades as you gesture what you’re trying to say to your friend.

Then your friend finally says, “Do you mean {that word that you just spent 5 minutes racking your brains for}?" And as your brain sings the Hallelujah Chorus, your mouth shouts, “YES!!! THAT WORD!!”

Now I admit that the above situation can, and often does, take a comical turn. But now imagine that instead of being with a friend in that situation, you are being interviewed for a job.

In most cases, the interviewer will either pass it off as a bad case of nerves or alternatively, makes the assumption you're just plain stupid. Either way, it's embarrassing and rather nerve-wracking for all parties concerned.

It would just be better if that "blank" was filled in the first place, right?

Of course, that is logical.

Now what exactly to fill the blank with?

Well, according to the old dusty English textbook, it would usually require either a noun, verb, or an adjective or adverb.

Okay. Now let's say after some careful deliberation, we find that we are in need of an adjective or an adverb.

Now, in an ordinary everyday setting, those would look like this:

"That's s*&#@y." - in response to a really crummy assignment.

or this:

"That's (f-bomb) awesome!!" in response to a really happy engagement announcement.

WHOA WHOA WHOA. Hold the bus. That can't be right!! WHY are those words used as adjectives and adverbs in a normal everyday context????

The answer may be a lot simpler than we had previously thought.

During a Mass earlier this year, I heard a sermon on the prevalent use of vulgarity in society. Quite a good topic, considering that dirty language has become so prevalent in society that there is no need to bleep them out on TV or that they constantly soak into our literature.

Father's main point is one that set me to thinking:

We use vulgarity because we don’t know how to express ourselves in any other way.

I’ve (unfortunately) been in that situation. I couldn’t figure out what word would fully sum up a guy’s behavior, so I called him a rather dirty word. It shocked my roommate, as she knew I didn’t swear or use vulgar language. I admit that if I had a better command of my own language I probably would have found a better word, even if I had to explain what it meant.

During that sermon I mentioned, the priest mentioned the fact that Shakespeare had a vocabulary of 40,000-50,000 words; and compared it to our generation of young adults, which has an estimated vocabulary of 200-3000 words.

Why does our generation have such a small vocabulary?

The priest placed some blame on the smartphone and texting. There is truth in that.

Back in the early 2000s when texting first became available, there was a limit on how many characters could be in a single text. The size of the text might have been affected by the number of characters too (don't quote me on that, I wasn't texting at that time).

Back then, it cost a fair penny to send multiple texts and you were limited by a specific number of texts per month. And teens often paid for their own cell phone usage out of their high school job wages, which even then weren't all that great. And if you were texting with a flip phone, there was the risk of having multiple texts being sent out of order. I do know of THAT particular scourge...

With social media and chat forums of the same time period, it was the same story - there were character limits. 140 characters seems like a lot until you actually start writing. And discover that you can't get two full sentences in there. You can't convey a complex idea without shortening something or having a multiple stream of messages, which could get separated to goodness knows where. It's worse than sticky notes sometimes.

And then there is the other side of the coin....

Teenagers, being the smart little sloths that they are, noticed that it was much faster and required much less effort to use shortened words and less vocabulary. And the teen on the other end usually was smart enough to decode it (or at least, knew where they could find the answer if they didn't).

So, for the sake of teenage economics and teenage laziness, vocabulary was replaced by a system of shortened spellings, emojis and acronyms. Some of which (e.g. WTF, WTH, LMAO, etc.) reflected the crass language that was creeping into the teen vocabulary.

Now that cell phone companies have unlimited texting options and social media is starting to expand their character limits, there is no excuse to NOT use complete sentences or start using more vocabulary.

Swear words and vulgar words are not adjectives and adverbs. 

Nor should they be used as such.

There are thousands upon thousands of words that are relatively undiscovered by our young generation. As writers and readers, often act as trailblazers and explorers, bringing back unusual treasures. What if one of those treasures was a word...a word that has rarely seen the light of print?

I therefore challenge all writers and readers reading this post to expand your vocabulary by one word every day. Follow a word-of-the-day series. Go on Pinterest and follow language and words boards (including RW's board HERE!) Play the dictionary game on a rainy day. However way you do it, let us all lift the veil of linguistic ignorance once and for all.


  1. I agree with all of this! It's time we start expanding our vocabulary.

    ~Ivie|Ivie Writes

    1. Thank you Ivie! I couldn't agree more *breaks out dictionary*

  2. This was such a good and interesting post Catherine and I agree whole heartedly! lately I myself have been trying hard to learn new words and wittier expressions to express feelings. Thank you for this gem.

    1. You're so welcome, Anna!!!

      Ooh, I need to look up some more ways to write feelings too...


  3. Great job, Catherine!

    When I was twelve I met this guy who swore all the time and we got into a long discussion/debate once where I basically ended up telling him that if he couldn't express himself other than his curse words maybe he shouldn't at all. He actually stopped swearing in front of me after that, sometimes we would be talking I and would hear him catch himself.

    This post is really relatable and true! ^_^

    1. Thank you Gray!

      That is super awesome!!

      When I was in college, I had to deal with a lot of people who swore. My roommate actually notice that I would wince every time someone swore and she worked to correct the habit for the rest of the time we roomed together. And then there was the other side of the coin where a guy would wait eagerly for me to swear and then I would disappoint him...*rolls eyes*

  4. Okay, so this post is amazing!!! It's thought-provoking, and informative, and I LOVE all the points you make. <3

    When I read a classic, I sometimes jot down the words I come across that I don't know what they mean, so I can look them up and therefore add them to my vocabulary. If I can remember them. xD

    1. Thank you Lila!!!

      Ooh that's a good idea! My Kindle has the option where if you press your finger on a word it will bring up a dictionary window and tell you what the word means. It doesn't work for every single word in every single book, but it's a really nice for expanding vocabulary :)

  5. I love this! I'm constantly trying to learn more about words.. and I think I speak only what I mean. But then I learn about new words.... "I've been saying THAT?" Golly, jerk, OMG, dork, dang.. all these words are really just slang for some pretty awful words ;/

    1. Thank you Keturah!!!

      I know right!! Clean slang is still slang and it can be really difficult to get yourself out of that habit.

      We should start a I'm blanking out on the word I want...hang on a minute *brings up online dictionary*...

      Ah! A clean interjections or exclamations page.

  6. I totally agree with you! Honestly my spirits droop when I see so much bad language on social media and hear it pouring out of teens. Bad language tends to hint at a lack of intelligence, and I suspect there's some sort of correlation between bad language and low self-esteem. I know from experience that I don't feel very smart when I use rude words, so I try to encourage my friends to use better expressions because I want them to feel intelligent and confident. :)

    1. I know what you mean! It drove me crazy in college when I literally heard a swear word every single day on campus - from professors and classmates alike!!!

      In some cases, it can reflect that, but I think the greater lack of intelligence is when the person has a better vocabulary and they choose to use the dirty language.

      I personally didn't feel very smart during that situation I mentioned with my roommate. I'm so glad to hear that, and I commend you Nicole!!

  7. I really like your point that we often use less than honorable words because we don't think hard enough to come up with an alternative. Kudos, Catherine or a perspicacious post--my better word for the day!

    1. Thank you, Mrs. Baldwin!! It truly is a problem, and it can be cured with example.

      Now that's a new word for me! *goes to scurry for that online dictionary*. Again, thank you!!

  8. Wonderful post, Catherine! It's very true that teens these days don't have a very big vocabulary (I know I don't :P). The English language is so vast and beautiful and social media has made us dumb it down.

    Now I feel like going and reading the Dictionary XD

    audrey caylin

    1. Thank you Audrey!!

      Mine isn't all that much bigger, and I'm in my 20s! That is so true, and it's really sad!

      Heehee, it's a rather interesting book, so they tell me :) LOL

  9. Oh wow, Catherine, that situation at the beginning seems really familiar, I wonder why???

    Kidding aside, this was really great. I may be guilty of using crass words to describe things and I really am trying to remedy that.


    1. Oh, I don't know, Lilah....LOL, it's not like it's happened all that often when we were together or anything...LOL.

      Thank you dear sis! It can be a hard habit (I have it too, and I need to kick it). Keep trying!

  10. While I agree that cursing and swearing might appear quite often, I'm going to go back to your Shakespeare at the beginning. Among the words he invented, a lot of them were swear-words... and he used them quite liberally. I do think there should be a time and place for different kinds of language being used, though.
    Like, a lot of us have a certain way we speak to our friends. And if we've known them a long time, there might be some words we use that don't mean the same thing anymore that they mean to other people. Due to a specific situation, an inside joke, or something else.
    I teach in high school, and I refuse to hear swear words in my classroom. I have one student who is really vulgar, and she doesn't even realize it most of the time. Needless to say, I make comments about this almost every class, and she's slowly getting better. And possibly expanding her vocabulary as well.
    Plus, there are even some actual peer-reviewed linguistic articles that debunk the myth of people swearing having a poorer vocabulary. You can find those here and here if you're interested.
    I'm not trying to say that people should swear more - but I don't think it's necessarily true that those who do have a poor vocabulary.
    Now, when it comes to social media and texting, the short-hand and cutting of words definitely does something to our language. And it's a bit sad that some young people (like some of my students) don't really know how to write full sentences anymore. With complete words, a subject, a verb and an object, for example.
    I draw a blank for certain words all the time, and the weirdest thing is that that particular blank actually crosses over to other languages I speak. If I want to say that word in English, but I draw a blank, I can't find that specific word in French, either. And that's a bit scary. I would love to understand how and why that happens.
    Language is my passion, so sorry if this comment is too long :) Very interesting subject.
    Lexxie @ (un)Conventional Bookviews

    1. First things first, thank you very much for your lovely monster comment :). I don't mind comment length, and you bring up some really interesting points!

      Unfortunately, Shakespeare lived in a very bawdy time period. And by that, I mean that it was the norm to have really sexualized language and crass humor, especially in popular literature. Just go to a normal Renaissance Faire, and you'll see what I mean.

      Language does have it's nuances, I will agree, and there are some things that we reserve for different situations and people. I personally wouldn't use that as an excuse to swear, but others might. I have personally cursed when under extreme emotional duress, and I can argue that whatever relief I felt was extremely fleeting.

      I took a look at the study that you linked and found them interesting. I personally am not satisfied with the results of that study and would need to see a more expansive study before I believe the myth fully debunked. A swear word is still a word so anyone that has a vocabulary mixed with swear words compared to someone who doesn't automatically has more "words" in their lexicon. I'm willing to bet that those people tested that had the bigger swear vocabulary were adults who purposely built their vocabulary up so they could AVOID using the swear words. Much different from a kid who grows up with a potty mouth and doesn't bother to study the language.

      Even if that myth was debunked by this study, the study has already proven that there are still bad effects of swearing - less self-discipline, more anger/depression, and less cooperation. All of which are unhealthy goals, especially in the youth!

      Please understand that I'm not trying to start a fight, I just see holes in this particular study's logic.

      I do agree, it's super sad to see high schoolers that can't write anymore - they don't practice it enough in their daily life because of all the social media. I'm sure the only reason why I can write well is because I was forbidden to use social media until after I was 18.

      That is weird - I've never heard of that happening. I've heard of people that have trouble translating a word or if they do draw a blank they can think of it in another language (I once saw a screenshot of a social media post about a young man who knew several languages who tried to order some food and wound up mashing several words of at least 5 languages together because he was flustered. Rather funny!)

      Thank you again for the comment, Lexxie!

  11. This was quite interesting, Catherine! (And having memory issues, my brain blanks out frequently...)

    Personally, I find that what I have been putting in my head recently is what is most likely to come out of my mouth. So I've been trying to take in less and less "bad language" and so avoid things that are likely to have word I don't want to say myself. And then taking in things that are better (whatsoever things are pure and lovely, think on these).

    And then I try to find different things that I can say - that aren't just slang for the words I don't want to say (like Keturah mentioned above). The Russian "oy" has become a favorite exclamation of can use it in a lot of situations. :)

    But also working on thinking before I speak...that's helped a little, though I still have lots of trouble with preparing what I'm going to say before I say it.

    1. Thank you Julian!

      heehee, it happens a lot to me too. I'll be chatting along and the train just disappears...really frustrating.

      I know what you mean - most of the time, I catch it before it escapes my mouth, but I really don't want those words to hang around in my head either.

      We need a database for words like that....I'll have to keep that word in mind!

      That is true - the ancients weren't kidding when they made that proverb.

  12. Awesome post, Catherine! I know that I have a very limited vocabulary, so I will take you up on your challenge. :D

  13. I love this so much.
    Why do we have to have such small vocabularies?
    Let's change this!

  14. Great post, thank you, Catherine!! I don’t use vulgar language in speech or writing, but I would definitely love to expand my vocabulary in both. I’m just a little afraid that readers won’t know what the words I find from the dictionary or the Pinterest board mean! Maybe I shouldn’t worry about that, but because it’s not my style of vocabulary, I just don’t feel as comfortable using it. I’ll have to give it a try though. The Shakespeare statistic really inspires me.

    1. That's one of my fears too, Sarah. Especially since half of our generation doesn't know how to read a print dictionary anymore (thanks a lot, Google...)

      Start gradually, and use lots of context so people can figure it out. That's the best way to introduce new vocabulary into people's minds (it's actually the primary way we learn vocabulary anyway, by connotation and context).

      I know right?! And we claim to be more advanced than our predecessors (Yeah right.....)

  15. *tears in my eyes* I've been looking for this blog for so long. For these points to be made and for the courage and faith to step out and stand against them to be taken. Thank you Catherine and thank you #rebelliouswriting team!!!!

  16. This is really good. I hate it when I hear a word and it comes to mind frequently. Very sad. I totally believe that we as writers should have a standard of purity in our writing, and not just that, but also strive to stretch the vocabulary!!! Great post!!!