What would happen if all of a sudden words began to disappear? I’m not talking about how the mother tongue can’t understand her children, as in the evolution from Latin to French to early English.
I'm just imagining a world in which certain words would just stop being words. It could start with swear words. Every day or so, some verbal vehicle of vulgarity could vanish, simply dropping out of existence. There would be no forewarning; it would just disappear. Poof. Here one day, gone the next.
There would no longer be any mention of them in the dictionary or Google. Blaspheming would be out of circulation. Crudeness would be impossible to utter.
Pupils would lose vocabulary, not gain it. The word list from the playground would be shorter and the spelling lists longer.
Again, I'm not talking about the archaic words that only appear in Shakespeare. The words that would be flying off the radar would be current everyday expressions. Some folks would start to notice right away; those with limited vocabularies might run out of word options fairly quickly.
The disappearances would also include expressions, not just single words. There would no longer be a way of saying, “I am blankety-blank mad.” The amplification of anger, annoyance, irritation, frustration or being ticked off would not be open for business.
Months into the phenomenon, whole conversations would end quickly or never start. There would be no obscene words or sounds for the body's parts or how they work.
Whole segments of society would fall silent. Sailors and drill sergeants would be speechless. Teens would stutter. Movies would return to the silent era but keep the color and explosions. Authors or screenwriters who couldn’t adapt to the new evolution in language would fill unemployment offices. Songs would be shorter and there would be more humming. Various artists (or so-called artists) would have to seek government assistance because they couldn’t fill the airwaves with sounds that offend or shock.
To draw attention, a person would have to resort to waving or speaking faster or louder. He could no longer hijack a conversation with profanity. To make his point he would have to use more eloquent or poetic speech.
Powermongers of any kind would have to turn to persuasion rather than verbal bullying to get their way. Abuse by tirade would be no more.
Instead, listeners would appreciate more words and phrases like “I understand your point of view"; “Let’s put aside our differences and work together"; “Thank you"; “I love you"; “I was wrong; I am sorry.”
Unfortunately, swear words are tenacious. If they left, we would make up other noise to replace them.
Even more unfortunately, instead of swear words disappearing, terms of cooperation and endearment are vanishing. Even in interchanges of intimacy, we notice the growing absence of words of love or appreciation.
Lovers compliment without complimenting: “I can’t tell you how happy you make me.” (Start practicing how to say it.) Friends say, “Words can’t express how important you are to me.” (Actually, they can.) People living next to each other say, “We can’t say how nice it is to have good neighbors.” (Go ahead; we will be right here waiting.) We have stopped sharing even with all the words of modern language at our disposal.
Parents too often say to their kids, “I can’t tell you how much I love you.” Guess how that makes a child feel? She wants to say in return, “Please try; I need to hear it.” With that phrase, a parent offers sweet security but then immediately yanks it back.
Terms of endearment exist. We just need to choose our words more carefully. Start with, "Flip. Let me tell you how much I love you."
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at [email protected].