Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Imus in the Garden of Forbidden Words

I could never understand why people listened to Don Imus, a rather  mean-spirited schlock radio talk show host given to haranguing the rich and famous in unenlightening ways. I would be happy that he is gone except I know he will be replaced by someone worse, another enemy of education who prefers ad hominem nastiness to reasoned discussion.

However, the uproar in the news over the loss of such an insignificant mind might seem totally bewildering. Every African and European American TV personality has been hammering for a week now the same blatantly obvious point: Imus let a racial slur slip out on a live mike. Notice the charge is not that Imus is a racist but that he uttered two prohibited words that offended the women’s basketball team of Rutgers University.

So the substantive issue is that Don Imus’s comment offended the Rutgers team. Don Imus? Offend someone? His infamous insults of President and Mrs. Clinton received less press coverage than the racist phrase (which the media love to repeat). He has insulted everyone on Earth whose name has made the news. I’ve seen two interviews with the Rutgers team in which all members seemed bewildered themselves. The issue is not effrontery or racism.

The issue in this brouhaha is the words themselves. Words, as I have also said several times are far more powerful than their size suggests. Every language maintains a list of forbidden lexical fruit we are not allowed to touch. 50 years ago this list contained what we called “profanity”, nonmedical terms referring to sex and the organs involved in it. These words have become commonplace now so we need a new list. Keep in mind, the point is not the meaning of the words or what they symbolize: the point is the list itself. Unlikely as it may seem, every language must have a list of sacred words that no one is supposed to utter.

The important point is that a section of language is designated to be taboo and protected by fear. It has to be set aside, a challenge (not an impossibility) for children to learn, and protected by fear of social ostracism. Why? It just has to be; probably a part of human character—perhaps related to some need to whisper.

If Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the 60s were all ahead of their time in digging up the old garden of forbidden words, maybe Don Imus is just ahead of his time. Maybe it is time to destroy the current list as we draw up an even newer one. Or maybe Imus is just behind the times and should move on.

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