By Pauline Kerr
“Why can’t the English learn to speak?”
Uttered by My Fair Lady’s Professor Henry Higgins, in his upper-class English accent, as he instructs Eliza Doolittle on how to sound like a lady instead of a “victim of the gutters, condemned by every single word she utters,” the words hearken back to an environment and age when how one spoke was of tremendous importance.
In Higgins’ world, a few words and phrases would pinpoint much more than one’s place of birth but would also determine one’s position in society and one’s suitability for employment in certain lines of work. Eliza’s learning more genteel speech patterns meant she could find work as a lady’s maid or in a shop, rather than have to sell flowers in the street.
We might like to think that we are an ocean and a couple of centuries away from a time and place where such things mattered. This is Canada in the new millennium. People can say pretty much what they want, however they want, unless it involves threats of violence or defamation of character. As a general rule, the way one speaks has little to do with one’s career choices or social status. A quaint, not-from-around-here accent might be interesting but not really significant.
However, one’s choice of words still matters. While nobody faints at the dropping a few expletives, even an f-bomb or two, at a sports event or in a bar, there are situations where such language is unacceptable – for example, at a job interview, or during a church service.
This is a lesson the average child learns early, and in a bygone age, with the help of a cake of soap – about the time they repeat what a parent said when the ball went through the window.
Along with freedom to speak our minds comes responsibility to use discretion. A phrase like “you old buzzard,” would be a breezy and humorous greeting when directed at a same-age friend, might put one’s job in jeopardy when directed at an employer, and be considered cause for a contempt charge when aimed at a judge in a court of law.
Language used in casual conversation with friends tends to be far different from what would be acceptable in an office or classroom, or in front of a television camera.
And then there are words and phrases that even in the schoolyard, are the 2022 Canadian version of throwing a glove to the ground and sending someone to fetch dueling pistols and the coroner.
These often have racial or sexual connotations. Especially when spoken in anger, they are meant to be demeaning, insulting and offensive. “Them’s fightin’ words!” is more than something uttered by or at a varmint in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Words can and do hurt. Sticks and stones may break bones, but names can break one’s spirit. In extreme cases they intimidate and silence opposition, damage relationships beyond repair, and create a toxic workplace and/or home environment.
While most of us recognize that times change and so do customs involving what can be said in polite company, we acknowledge the harm that can be done when words, both written and spoken, are used as weapons.
This translates into an urgent need to tone down online rhetoric. Why anyone would deliberately seek to enflame and infuriate a person who may already be somewhat unbalanced, is a mystery.
It also translates into a wish to curb the tendency to call out others with whom we disagree – whether on social media, in block capitals, with multiple exclamation marks, or in person, loudly and obscenely.
Let this be a plea for a bit more care in everyone’s choice of language. “Awesome” is a powerful word that stands alone – it does not require a modifier, especially one that starts with “f.” Ditto for “amazing,” and “incredible” – all of which can be used to describe the wonderfully expressive English language. Words do not need to be weaponized to effectively garner attention, make a point or voice an opinion.