Friday, November 14, 2008


I got an email recently mentioning that my latest utilities bill is available online, desperate for attention like a small dog for petting or a pretzel for butter (the analogy is not perfect). "We are happy to inform you..." it begins. I'm sure you are.

I find this kind of thing very amusing (its quality as sarcasm fodder is unsurpassed). I mentioned previously my fondness for the incongruous and this is an excellent example. The rest of the missive is every bit as genially vague, dancing around its true purpose like a landmine. Not once does it use the word 'bill' in the body of the email, preferring instead to speak of 'account information' and 'view the balance'; 'payment' hides at the bottom.

Still, it's that opening line that really gets me. What, exactly, is the rationale here? that I will open the email and the thought-process will be something like this: "Oh...a bill...but wait, they're happy to tell me about it. That takes the sting out. I guess I'm happy too, and will pay this in good cheer and with great haste"? No. No one would think this. No one would think that any one would think this. Bills are not a happy experience. I am not happy. They who tell me about the bill are not, in fact, happy. The computer that actually generated this email and sent it to me is not happy. The threat of legal action would be much more effective at motivating me to pay up on anything in danger of coming due. To act as though this anonymous auto-generated reminder of an ugly duty is something deserving of an attempt at a sunny smile is, frankly, absurd, if not outright insulting.

It is also tragically predictable - we Americans love our euphemisms, as I think I mentioned previously, and this is just a more bizarre example of our unending quest to make displeasing things more palatable. I find euphemisms fascinating (this is true of many things), even when they're insulting my intelligence, in large part because I have never quite understood their function, or at least their efficacy. A euphemism is nothing more than a lousy disguise - if the disguise is too good, meaning is obscured and communication fails, which is problematic. Sure, there are cases where this can be manipulated to a legitimate end (talking over someone's head springs to mind). But there are many examples where everyone sees through the disguise, and yet desires its retention; why?

How about that profanity? The excellent science-fiction show Battlestar Galactica is a good example - pretty much every curse word in the book makes the occasional appearance and is not censored, with the glaring exception of the F-bomb, which is replaced by 'Frak.' Boy, that makes it all better. 'Frak' gets used a lot, and in every context that its real-world counterpart might be found, and I have to point out: it's obvious what word is intended. They're using all these other profanities that we know and, er, know, and then they drop in this slightly-altered version of the King of Kurse, the Sultan of Swear, and somehow this is supposed to make it more acceptable for broadcast. But why? If we're all thinking the real word when they speak its substitute, how is anyone 'helped' or societal standards preserved? What is so dangerously powerful about the sound of the word such that it's okay to plant it in everyone's mind but not okay to apply it to everyone's ears? I don't question that there is a difference, yet I do not understand it. Meanwhile the coherence and believability of the BSG world is actually weakened because the lingo is otherwise the same, and when the exception makes its appearance, it jars.

Making up words is always a hazardous business, especially if you go only halfway and especially if you just make up profanity. It's really hard to do this without the result sounding silly and contrived (several otherwise-decent Star Wars novels have fallen prey to this phenomenon). If you're going to go this route it might as well be with tweaked versions of the usual suspects, these being the safest bet...but do they really accomplish the intended purpose? Frankly this desire to hide something in plain sight, hardly limited to the realms of offensive language and monetary transactions, strikes me as a mild but universal hypocrisy. But what are we even kidding ourselves about?

1 comment:

Jennie said...

One possible exception to the examples you've given is in Farscape, where they replace a fairly sizable chunk of vocabulary. Mostly, it's words for time and distance in addition to the swear words. Of course, it's just as obvious what they mean ('arn' for 'year' is not hard to figure out), but somehow it seems less jarring because they were willing to go farther with it.