Bad Words

As a kid, living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, I heard the term “niggersandspics” so often I thought it was a single word. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but because of the way people (whites, Jews, Italians, Irish, Poles, etc) used it, I knew it was not complimentary.

I also grew up with blacks using half that word in a friendly, cajoling and casual way. Ricans also used spic as a self-identifier in a way that made clear they had owned the word.

As I grew up and heard many other racial, sexual and LGBT epithets the one thing that seemed always true was that the words themselves were almost meaningless except for two factors; context and intent. The difference between some cracker (irony intended) calling me a spic and one of my homies doing it was so different that you could substitute a completely made up word, insert it into the slot where “spic” had been in both instances and the outcome for both would be exactly the same.

So I realized and hold, that there is no such thing as a “bad word”. That ALL words are dependent on context and intent in order to properly gauge meaning. As an example I present the word “boy” as most often used in sentence based in love; That’s my boy!, That boy! Ok boys and girls, take a seat. But this same word was also used in a way so as to be interchangeable with half of the title of this article; Come here boy and fetch this bucket. Even a sentence that is made of the exact words used in the loving example, can be hate filled when the context and intent make plain; That’s my boy. Boy is not the only word that can be considered a hate term, but only when used in a specific context.

This also applies to what are commonly called “curse words”. My daily language is laced with profanity, so when I was about to get married, my soon to be wife, who also likes to use the odd fuck or shit, discussed how to handle it in front of the kids. I said that I would not be a hypocrite and do what my and many parents did, which was to tell the youngins that those were bad words, or some such. That we would do the only reasonable thing and tell them that there were words only adults could use and that they would be more than welcome to make use of them too, when they came of age and not before. So in public people would curse, notice the kids then apologize and we would simply respond that they are fully aware of those words and we have no fear of them being damaged by hearing them. Loved watching the faces of other parents who tried to keep their kiddies ears virginal in principle, but in reality only managed to teach the wrongheaded lesson of "do as I say, not as I do" hypocrisy. This approached worked perfectly and neither of them even tried to include them in their vocabulary until they were deep in their late teen years. We had also taught them the concept of “appropriateness”, so even once they came of age where they could curse, they knew there were times for them AND us during which it would be inappropriate.

There is a short story that is relevant here... When I arrived in San Diego many years ago, one of the first friends I made happened to be black. He had traveled and lived in NYC for a while and “got” Puerto Ricans. One day I went to hang out with him and was the only non-African American on the set. It quickly became clear that most of them didn’t understand why I was there and displayed unfriendly and even downright hostile attitudes. My friend asked what their problem was and heard “why you bringing white boys ‘round here”. Without hesitation he replied “you stupid fucking country-niggers don’t know nothing. This here is a homie, he ain’t white he’s a fucking Rican. But yall wouldn’t know ‘nutin ‘bout that ‘cause you aint never been nowhere. In New York niggerandspics hang and if you dumb fucks don’t give him some respect, you’ll talk to me.

There it was again “niggerandspics” not only in a context that went way beyond familiar, but made clear that the intent was to save me getting a beat down and help get acceptance.

On the other hand; I also understand that the way I think words must be viewed in context to understand meaning is NOT how many others view it. For them the words themselves, regardless of “context and intent” are hateful and painful in and of themselves. That means there is a balance that must be kept, by knowing who you are heard by, so unecesary pain is not caused and you are not misconstrued. 

It is also easy to separate Richard Pryor or Ice Cube or anyone else holding that there is another factor that must be considered, i.e. WHO is saying it. That even going back to my childhood, still innocent and not yet fully understanding language, it took no effort to comprehend the polar opposite gut reaction I had when an “other” used the word vs when one of “ours” did.

Post script;

Felipe Luciano, Minister of Information and my old "boss" in the Young Lords Party and a Member of The Last Poets here recites a poem he wrote many years earlier and adds an eloquent intro that is a thing of beauty.

Jose Rosa

Jose Rosa

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