Dangerous Slang

toilet 2When we moved to Alabama, my wife innocently offended some of her young students by using a slang word that in our family simply meant “stuff,” but apparently is used elsewhere for more vulgar purposes.

In a reference to something such as things being in the way, she said the word “crap.” Obviously she was definitely not using it in the Thomas Crapper sense. But some of the Southern kids had never heard it applied in an innocent way, so they naturally assumed she was using it in a crasser sense.

She wasn’t. I grew up with the word meaning “junk, stuff or clutter” with the connotation that they were unwelcome, and “in the way.” My sainted mother—from whose lips I do not ever once recall hearing a vulgar word pass—used the word “crap” often.

And because the source of the word’s usage was so pure and unadulterated (my mom), I mistakenly assumed I fully understood the word’s meaning.

Still, old habits are hard to change, and I find myself occasionally using that very word. And, I must confess, I sometimes even use it as a minor expression of irritation. For example, I just used it in the subject line of an email I sent to some fellow students of ancient Roman history. “Crap, I Just Missed This” was the exact phrase, and the body of the message consisted only of a link to a fascinating conference held in Rome just a few days before I learned about it.

The link was to this site. . . and if you don’t have the time or inclination to check it out, allow me to share the fascinating subject it addressed:

It was sponsored by the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome, quite a prestigious organization. No fewer than seven scholars who have been excavating Rome’s ancient latrines were slated to speak—I’m eager to learn whether or not their presentations will be published for the benefit of those of us unable to attend.* They generously offered “free seating” to members of the public desiring to attend the historic programme.**

C.S. Lewis apparently respected the Roman Empire enough to take the Roman name of an ancient Italian city for the name of fabled “Narnia.” While I’ve yet to find any references in Lewis’ corpus to Roman plumbing, I found this appraisal of a History of Rome which he noted in his diary (16 March 1924). During an extended country walk with two friends, he dined at an inn and browsed through its public library.

After some time we went on to Stanton Harcourt where we were to lunch. Before we reached it the sun suddenly disappeared and the sky got white and a cold wind sprang up. In the inn parlour we consumed large quantities of bread and cheese and draft cider. Harwood found a delightful book here—a History of Rome “related in conversations by a father to his children with instructive comments”. The children made such comments as “How pleasing is filial piety, Papa!” and “My dear Sir, surely you have been too indulgent in describing the vices of Honorius as weakness.”

One wonders what sort of refined comments the children would have made about the recent conference. Perhaps something like, “Most honored patriarch, it is enlightening to learn just how elaborate was the attention the Romans devoted to the facilities dedicated to their private bodily functions.”

Well, enough about such matters. We have terribly digressed in a post originally intended to serve as a warning about the dangers of using slang. I guess I am just so disappointed about missing the conference that I needed to vent that here.


* One wonders how they were able to adequately address this complex subject in a one-day seminar.

toilet 1** The invitation does not expressly say whether it would consist of individual seats, or in a bench design, similar to that pictured below, from the workshop’s brochure. Speaking of pictures, the one at the top of the column, also from the promotional publication, is a fresco from the ceiling of a toilet on the Palatine. (And we think our bathrooms are fancy!)

15 thoughts on “Dangerous Slang

  1. Oh, my. Mom would have had the soap out for that one. Slang was discouraged when I grew up: it was “low class” and “a poor reflection on the family”. It was inappropriate in polite society. Using slang showed ignorance and lack of respect(for yourself, family, society as a whole). Slang would limit your success in your job – create a poor image of you – so no promotions since you obviously didn’t have a clue of what was appropriate.

    Then the idea changed to “You could have different vocabulary/words for different situations”. “That type of talk is inappropriate here. Say it another way that’s acceptable”….and we tried to broaden students’ vocabulary or their banks of words. We assumed they didn’t have words.

    Then it changed to “oh just blurt out anything” and Anything goes – especially if it’s funny or ridiculing another person. It’s witty! It’s clever! Show how smart and free of conventions you are”.

    Now look where society is. No filters on words or thoughts. Unless one group decides it’s acceptable for one, but not for another. Seriously either it’s OK to use for all or it’s not OK ever (even if making money – or being “cute/funny” is involved)

    Perhaps it’s time for society to wrap back around towards polite conversation. And “you say that again, Fool, and you’ll be eating soap.”
    (How did they clean those ancient bathrooms?…Outhouses are in the sun with ventilation if built right, but stone tends to uh, soak up, uh, odors….Bet the conference covered that, too. Darn.)

    1. That’s a great analysis of the decline of American conversation.

      As for your final comment, that’s a great question. I’ll be sure to let you know when they publish the papers from the conference!

  2. I think C.S. Lewis would have regarded the whole shock at the word “crap” to be uniquely American. The Inklings were hardly a gathering of wilting church ladies and Lewis married a woman who was noteworthy for her potty mouth.

    1. Good analogy. When I hear “crud,” it makes me think of uncleanliness, since I used to hear when I was younger, “wash up well, since you don’t want a case of the creeping crud.” Not sure what the crud was, but the adjective alone was pretty creepy!

  3. Gee, where in Alabama were you? People say “crap” all the time around here in Northwest Georgia, not too far from Northeast Alabama. I actually learned it from my kids, because in the household I grew up in, you got your mouth washed out with soap for any bad words!

    1. We lived in Montgomery, the “Heart of Dixie,” as the license plates said. Of course, the “bad” part of slang is subjective. Like the case I used, to some of us it’s just a word for “junk.” To others… well…

  4. Here in Tennessee “crap,” “dangit,” “shoot,” and “son of a biscuit” are part of the vulgar “Christian cuss words,” as a Canadian professor friend of mine calls them. Personally, I see nothing wrong with them, for they add color and intensity, when properly applied, to ordinary conversation. Worse words are reserved for the labeling of Yankees, liberals, and when one bangs his knuckles on a motor block while changing an oil filter in 30 degree weather. And I don’t think the Lord minds….dangit.

    1. Well that’s bloody open-minded of you! Whoops.

      I don’t want to offend anyone by using a more critical word (even though it’s actually found in the Bible), but your comment about labeling Yankees made me laugh. As a Westerner, who would is labeled a Yankee by Southerners, I picked up a great souvenir when I was down there for my first visit, thirty years ago. It’s a coffee mug with a picture of the quintessential Confederate officer, and it says “we don’t give a damn how you do it up North!” I still treasure it. Really captures the animus engendered by carpetbaggers and the like during the Reconstruction.

  5. A. Carroll Crowe

    When I student taught, I made the mistake of using the word “crackpot” during a lecture. I simply associated it with a crazy person and never thought about how the kids might interpret it. Oops.

    1. Oh no… and now you’ve multiplied your sin by using that vile word here! It reminds me of one of the NCOs I worked with who had absolutely no respect for one of the chaplains on our staff. (I’m not sure who did respect the minister in question.) Nevertheless, whenever a third party was present I had to verbally reprimand him for saying it, even though I had to chuckle whenever the sergeant used it when we were alone. (I know, not very “professional” of me.) The problem was that the label “Knucklehead” just fit the individual in question so very well.

  6. Huh… I grew up with the word “crap” meaning either junk or excrement, depending on the context. I must admit, excavating Roman lavatories sounds pretty fascinating to me.

  7. Pingback: Discussing Awkward Subjects « Mere Inkling

Offer a Comment or Insight

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.