If we were able, somehow, to catapult a person from the 1800s to the present time, I don’t think the biggest surprise for him would be the inventions or progress we’ve made. Sure, the Internet would wow. The automobiles would amaze, and cell phones would certainly astonish, but I truly believe that one of the most shocking revelations for a 1800’s visitor in our modern day would be how base our language has become, and how coarsely members of our society relate to one another. Utterances that Rough Riders and 1840s gold miners might not have made on account of the words’ crassness are now routinely being said casually by youngsters at play. Magazine headlines that would have embarrassed even the most scandalous woman from the past do not cause a nice, modern woman to blink as she mindlessly tosses a propriety-offending periodical into her grocery cart, ostensibly because there’s simply a good recipe inside. If a matter is only an appropriate topic for quiet personal conversation among close relatives or friends, we as a society today, still blurt it out in mixed company in bank lines, in offices and even in front of millions of viewers- complete strangers-on television. We discuss hemorrhoids, feminine hygiene, and pills that are supposed to do things polite people just shouldn’t discuss in public. I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked in years past by complete strangers how many children I plan on having or if I am “trying” to conceive. Really? Are these personal topics appropriate small talk?
Nowadays, men commonly share information in front of women (often not their wives) which used to be reserved for talk only among other men, and the women often do no better. In fact, in some ways, modern women are like Eve figures, tempting the opposite gender to “be frank” about everything, even when they clearly shouldn’t. Contemporary conversations include scathing sarcastic comments, provocative double entendre phrases, and often disregard the sacred by chattering about it in casual ways. “Confiding publicly” used to be an oxymoron but not anymore. We say too much and we don’t say it well. Where have our verbal manners gone? And can we ever get them back?
I recently met a lovely teenage girl, an acquaintance of one of my children. She was smart, pretty, earned good grades and came from a well respected family in the community. To make conversation as we were sitting in the kitchen together I asked her how her classes were going. “Most are okay,” she answered demurely, “but a couple of them really suck.” “S*ck”? I cringed. Ouch. Ew. Yuck! I’m convinced that she didn’t mean to be impolite by that choice of word, and that she was merely parroting what she had heard around her in her circle of friends, but it sounded so coarse, so vulgar. So rude. Perhaps the saddest thing is that she didn’t even know it.
It would be bad enough if crassness was only a teenage phenomenon. But it isn’t. Tactless expressions can be found posted on some adult Facebook statuses, sprinkled casually in conversation and even in advertising. In fact, just the other day I saw a billboard for a restaurant promoting its margaritas. Capitalizing on the Twilight vampire rage, no doubt (another article for another time), a woman with fangs was depicted with a drink, and that same offending “s” word, out of traditional context. This was plastered along the highway in plain view where any child just looking out the car window could read it. Ew. Just ew.
I grew up in a family where even the word “stupid” was considered to be impolite. My mom told us that vulgar words, swear words, and even nondescript insulting words (like “stupid”) were a demonstration of a lack of vocabulary, intelligence and manners. “People say those words when they can’t think of a word that fits better,” Mom would say. “It’s not very classy. It’s not very intelligent.” By Mom’s definition we live in a classless, uneducated society with pervasive deficits in productive communication. I’m sure she would like to sit us all in a corner with a dictionary until the words that come out of our mouths are nice. I may have been raised in a somewhat sheltered environment, I admit. However, I can’t help but thinking the world would be a kinder, more polite, and happier place if everyone just listened to my mother.
Some may claim that the evolution of a word such as “suck” from its original meaning the literal “intake of a liquid or vacuum” to connote “an intense dislike for something” is a normal verbal phenomenon. I don’t agree. Slang doesn’t necessarily have to descend into vulgarity. Words can morph without declining. They are at our command. We can control them.
My seventh grade daughter just finished reading Animal Farm by George Orwell. One of the themes in the book is the power of words and what perverted words can do to a society. This is evident in abortion language of course. Call the baby victim a “fetus” and say “terminate” instead of “kill” and the word crafters can make abortion seem like what it is not. Have we stopped to consider, in a somewhat lesser way, what commonplace base language is doing to our societal soul, how it is killing our propriety, manners and in doing so our dignity? We are fooling ourselves, calling things what they are not, and diluting the beauty of the English language. Proper use of language is not an indication of priggery. It is evidence of a dedication to succinctness, to style, and ultimately to Truth. Using proper vocabulary well, even in front of children—especially in front of children—brings discussion up to a higher level, and in doing so brings society up to a higher level as well. We are what we speak.
I can’t help but wonder if the explosion of bully problems today results partly from a simple lack of manners training. I am thinking of a teenage girl who knocks down others with an aptly performed roll of the eyes and single sarcastic word, “Loser!” as she passes someone she has targeted as such. I have observed first-hand how a girl like this can actually make some of her peers duck down an aisle in the clothing store or turn the other way in the high school parking lot just by her foreboding presence. Little Miss Peevish probably didn’t wake up one morning and decide to be a bully. Rather, over time, she likely developed this attitude. She probably exhibited it in small ways at first and then more completely later when she was not corrected or challenged. As she ‘got away with it’ she found it was effective to control and dominate others. I suggest that we don’t need bully programs to eradicate the problem of kids picking on others. We need parents who say “no” to little tyrants with attitude. We need parents who will teach manners.
On a related although less severe note, I wince when I am seated in a doctor’s office and I hear a nurse who can’t be more than 25 years old come into the waiting room and call for “Helen” or “Dorothy”, then see a woman rise who is clearly old enough to be the nurse’s grandmother. Calling an elder Mr. Jones or Mrs. Peterson is a small gesture of respect, but a nicety that our society would do very well to follow. When a five year old addresses a playmate’s mom as “Claire” instead of “Mrs. Thompson”, I can’t help but think that respect for adults is being slowly whittled away. In no time at all, that five year old will become a young teen, who will likely feel even more empowered arguing with “Claire” than she might with a Mrs. Thompson. Age and wisdom used to be something regarded as worthy of respect. We need to restore that, now.
Books can and probably have been written about the problem of a lack of manners in society, but I suggest the solution is simpler than we may think. We can just decisively refuse to go along with the lack of propriety that is permeating our culture. We can simply decline to join in conversations that are inappropriate or intrusive. We can opt not to answer probing questions and if pressed, smile sweetly and turn the table on the questioner. “Oh you don’t want to know that,” we can say, or “Why on earth would you ask?” Eventually the offenders will get the point. We hope.
We also should follow the example of a certain Saint Margaret of Scotland. Saint Margaret is sometimes referred to as “the mother of a nation”. She was a lovely cultured princess who was shipwrecked on the wild and untamed shores of Scotland. As Wendy Leifeld writes in her book Mothers of the Saints (Servant Publications), “The Scottish king, a rough-hewn and commanding man” of a rough and uncivilized nation, fell in love with Margaret. She became queen and then used her influence to remake Scotland in a positive way. Margaret taught her children (the future kings and queens of Scotland and thus generations of Scots) to love God above all earthly power and she educated them in grace and culture. She raised them to respect their own dignity and the dignity of others, no doubt in speech as well as action. Margaret brought refinement not only to her family castle, but to the people of Scotland as well. She introduced the basics of cleanliness and proper diet as well as new styles in dignified clothing and furniture. Leifeld writes that “while (Margaret’s)husband consolidated the kingdom, she civilized it.” In short, Margaret affected the world around her by raising her children well. God put her in a position of influence and the rest is, literally, history.
The command of language, the civilization of society can begin in our homes with the training of our children. “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” said poet William Ross Wallace. Truly, if we are to once again harness language and its power as a positive force, the task begins as many others do, under the tutelage of loving parents, particularly mothers who have unique influence over civility and propriety of a family and of a world.
The results of our actions can extend beyond our lifetime and influence future generations with a bit of effort and self-discipline. As Saint Margaret of Scotland did, we must teach simple courtesies, respect and proper use of language to our children. If we’ve never thought of vocabulary-building as a virtuous endeavor, we can think so now. Our world needs better vocabulary, better manners, kind words and proper speech. In short, civilization needs us. If enough of us not only learn to navigate politely in a rude world, but encourage others to do so as well, perhaps the tide of culture itself will change. Let’s try.
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