Monday, March 9, 2009

"Sentence Enhancers"

My son, age 4, is into Spongebob Squarepants these days. A recent episode about profanity cracked me up -- Spongebob and Patrick end up swearing like sailors, convinced that a particular word (presumably the F word) is a "sentence enhancer."

What I like about that is that it's right. It nails the actual effect of profanity, and a bunch of similar phenomena.

The other day, I used the phrase "It ain't easy" in a discussion board post written for the editors in our class. Perhaps some readers were startled to see an English teacher use ain't. But ain't is a sentence enhancer, and I used it quite deliberately for that very reason. It's a far stronger version of isn't.

From whence does it draw its strength? Answer: From the fact that it's illegal.

Making things illegal often makes their effects more powerful. This arguably goes for drugs, gambling, racial slurs, taboo topics, profanity, and some types of "bad" grammar (like ain't).

Banning a word gives it a new meaning: Now the word means, in addition to what it meant before, that you feel so strongly about something that you're willing to break the rule prohibiting the word use.

If the F word were simply another synonym for intercourse, it wouldn't have any more impact than "make love," "sex," or "hump." But it's the F word, a word so dirty that people abbreviate it in polite company. As a result, it is far, far more useful than "hump." If I walked into class one day and growled at the class, "For the last time, folks, cite your F-ing sources!" but didn't use the abbreviation, I guarantee people would 1) hear what I said, and 2) remember it. Yes, I'd probably receive complaints and get a talking to from the dean. (There are drawbacks to using powerful sentence enhancers. Getting fired or arrested rank top among them, in some situations.) But it would certainly make an impression, and stick in the memory. Its very illegality ensures it.

When I used ain't, I did so for the same reasons. I know it's likely to startle a little, particularly because I'm an English teacher. Also, I won't get fired or disciplined for saying ain't, which makes it a bit better than the F word in my book.

As a teacher of language, I sometimes wonder about people who ban words -- and whether they realize what they're doing. Really, if you want to disarm a word, abuse it. Overuse it. Render it ubiquitous, and adopt the thing. Use it in new ways, so that its meaning starts to shift. If you want to make it into a weapon that adept wordsmiths will suddenly find more useful than it was before, ban it.

My father, who once taught speech, made up a swear word at the beginning of a term, and emphasized that no one in the class should ever say it. The students initially snickered at the idea of a "made up" swear word, and probably played with it a little at first, just to snub the rules. But my father enforced the rule against it for a while, and usage dropped off. Then one day, he asked the class a question, a student gave him the answer, and my father called the student that banned word. The entire class became shocked and offended, and jumped to the student's defense. All over a word that hadn't existed just a few weeks before. The word, as I recall, didn't even have a specific meaning. Its entire meaning was "Don't use this word -- it's offensive." All of its power came from the ban. Without the ban, the class would have probably forgotten it even existed.

This brings me back to Spongebob, whose writers deserve both a pat on the back (for a fun episode) and a gentle rebuke. See, Spongebob and Patrick don't realize their "sentence enhancer" is socially unacceptable. But they love it. They think it "fancifies" their sentences, so they use it liberally, with gusto, until they drive all of the customers out of the Krusty Krab. In actuality, a real-life Bob and Patrick wouldn't find the word so fun and useful to use unless they first knew it was unacceptable. They'd see the word, shrug, and likely ignore it.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. (For my students: This transition brings me to the "anticipating objections" stage of my post.) Some of you are thinking, "Well, sure the F word is popular partly because it's prohibited. But it's also useful because it's so flexible. It can be used in so many different ways -- it's one of the most flexible words in the English language!"

Yes, it is flexible. Wonderfully flexible.

So are all profane, banned words. That's entirely my point. As soon as you ban them, you give them the additional "I'm making a point for emphasis" meaning, and then people start to use them to emphasize their points, even if the words aren't entirely right in terms of subject-matter. I can say "Get in the F-ing car," and you'll read that to mean I'm in a hurry. But if I say, "Get in the love-making automobile," you'd probably imagine a 1970's van with a mattress in the back, and wonder about my intentions. Because the F-word is banned, it can be used entirely for emphasis or offense, while love-making -- not being banned -- only means "love making."

And on that note, I will end this humping blog-post.


  1. Haha! very entertaining post. had me laughing.

  2. Haha, that was a really interesting read