Thursday, July 9, 2009

See You Next Tuesday, on Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is causing a stir today with its decision to feature on its main page an article about the traditional name for the main street of the red light district in medieval British cities: "Gropecunt Lane".

Now, I'm sure I've bruised eyeballs and shattered innocence by even dropping the C-Bomb in historical context, so to prevent further injury, all further references to the offensive word will use the obscure Chaucerian spelling "queynte".

As someone who deals with words in a professional manner, every day of his life, I look at our language's most offensive words with a mixture of curiosity and amusement. Why is queynte such a big deal? People use every possible crude euphemism for the male equivalent in work situations pretty frequently; when clients aren't around, the F-Bomb can be dropped without a second thought.

But queynte remains taboo, even in civilized boys-only discourse. Drop it in mixed company, and you're over the line. Drop in in front of my wife, and I sleep on the couch.

But will this ever change? Will popular culture and mass media defuse the C-Bomb?

As far as I'm aware, nobody dared say "Hell" on TV until 1967 when Captain dropped it at the end of "The City on the Edge of Forever". Twenty years later, the "Bitch" and "Bastard" frontier was crossed in primetime in a very special episode of Moonlighting. Since then, pretty much every other taboo word has made an appearance in the North American mainstream... except queynte.

The British islanders are a little less shy about it, as anyone who has seen movies like Trainspotting will attest. (If you click the link, be ready for a carpet-bombing of various naughty words.)

As a writer, I realize that words lose their power in overuse, or simply fall out of favour. The term "swive", once a shocker, is now meaningless. "Damn" was once written "D__n" because of its religious implications. (And, of course, "Taking the Lord's Name in Vain" is now as common as using "like" as a placeholder in casual speech.)

So, is the Wikipedia article the beginning of the end of queynte's power to shock and awe? And what new crudity will take its place?

My spellchecker and I will be keeping watch.

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