Verbal Pause

There’s an interesting article on CNN about how “the f-word is everywhere” — interesting to me, at least, but I am a linguist. That’s my job. How we use language is naturally high on the list of things I love to think about.

Writers naturally agree words have power. Nothing is so moving as the perfect word or phrase to communicate a message. Whether it’s the description of a scene or action, or the authentic response of a non-fictional or even fictional character, finding the just-right word is a heady moment.

Consider Mark Twain’s comment: The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

I discussed this with my teenage children (oh yes, this week we now have TWO teenage children in our house, Heaven help us). I naturally fear what they say around me and what they say around friends are different. One of my daughter’s friends accidentally “dropped the f-bomb” at the restaurant table after church (and suffered her mom’s threats of certain doom to follow). My kids often warn me which neighborhood friends are known for profanity.

My wife has drawn the line at “screwed” and “crap” and such. My teenage son gets away with “flippin'” and “dang it” slips past mom’s radar. If we waived the rules and let them say whatever they want, my kids would probably not even use the f-word or other strong profanity.

I chalk that up in the win column.

But I also work in the military, where the word is “everywhere” like the article suggests. Some younger personnel can’t seem to get a sentence out without a form of f— sprinkled in. It is indeed a versatile word, as the author suggests.

And I can’t be sanctimonious here. It has escaped my mouth too.

Traveling with small children through O’Hare airport, moving to a new duty station, I pushed a cart laden down with car seats, booster seats, luggage, carry-on bags and diaper bags. At the end of a moving walkway, everything collapsed. A wall of luggage blocked the exit. People tried to get by. I flew into a rage, flinging luggage off to the side, trying to clear the path, angered that we had so much, frustrated because I knew we needed all of it since we had nothing else to our names until our household shipments arrived (scheduled for a month or more later).

Not my finest moment.

And there have been times on the military aircraft where I do my job, when systems are failing or worse yet when our command and control structures are providing ridiculous input or confusing and arguably stupid direction. Few things get under my skin like technology that fails to deliver what is promised, but nonsense during operational missions can do it.

I’m not excusing the language; I’m admitting failure in an area where I want to do better.

What bothers me most about the f-word being everywhere is that in some circles and especially among the young adults I encounter, f— is the new verbal pause, a new “um” or “uh” included thoughtlessly in sentences, serving no purpose.

“Uh, do you know if – um – Tom is done with the – uhh – review of that – um – training folder? Uhh, Tom is always uhh late getting those – um – things completed.”

That’s as painful to read as it was to type out. But that’s essentially the way many people speak, substituting arguably the strongest profanity for each verbal pause.

Maybe it’s quaint and petty of me, too Ned Flanders “hi-delly-ho, neighbor” to feel this way. But yes… if that’s how someone speaks, I judge their ability to communicate. I note this symptom of either lack of vocabulary or effort to choose better words.

I’m a linguist. Words matter. How we use them says more about us than we might like to admit.

Here’s that CNN article – “The f-word is everywhere.”

What do you think? Do you agree with what the author suggests? How about my assessment? What does the prevalence of that word indicate? Let me know in a comment, please. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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