Friday, February 28, 2014

Keep Cool, Boy

That last post may have come across as angry.  I'm sure it came across as relentlessly sarcastic.  It might even be genuinely offensive.  So rather than let the blog sit on that note, I thought I would try to introduce a little perspective on the matter.

In a way, I regret writing it.  I don't claim to be a sage, but I do believe it's wiser to say nothing when all you want to do is denigrate someone.  It's not just the scatological insults that can cause collateral damage, after all.  If someone truly is a scoundrel, they'll remain so even if you refrain from pointing it out.  Unfortunately,  people do things for other reasons than careful consideration of what is and isn't wise.  Someone in my life has made a mess of things, and I wrote a mean little essay about them.  It's a little childish, but in my defense, so is the whole situation.

The sad truth is, Tara and my adventure in Korea is not going as smoothly as hoped.  You can read about all our troubles on the other blog; I'm not going to rehash them here.  Essentially, we were taken advantage of by people who ought to have known better.  We ought to have known better than to trust them.  Now we are stuck, and will probably have to do something a little crazy to get unstuck.

I'm just glad that, even with all the uncertainty in our lives today, Tara and I still have each other to rely on.  Together, we reaffirm the necessity and the practicability of trust and love, and together we are not afraid.  We'll work something out, and be better (and yes, wiser) for our troubles.

And in the meantime, I have a weekend ahead of me with not much to do.  I think I will make myself feel better by writing something good and worthwhile.  Potty-mouthed catharsis is nice, but it won't stand the test of time.  It's high time for something more sophisticated on this blog.  Something that I can look back on and smile at.  Probably something with less swearing.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

English and the Insult

*The following post contains, and indeed dwells considerably upon, profanity*

About a month ago, I had a conversation with a Korean friend of mine concerning the most effective ways to describe a disliked person in English.  Her English was pretty good, and she already had quite a handle on the basics of swearing, letting loose a series of fucks and bastards with righteous fury.  But she seemed dissatisfied with the limitations of English cursing, feeling that these words didn't really get at the heart of why the object of her ire was so detestable.  My helpful suggestions of motherfucker, asshole, and son of a bitch served only to illustrate her point.  American English at least does not have a very extensive list of devastating curses.

Recently, I too have had reason to consider the most effective way to utterly disparage the character of another human being in my native tongue.  It's not surprising really; we've all been in that sort of mood, and it's not really important to know who we're talking about today or what they've done to deserve such infamous treatment.  Trust me when I say that the bastard has earned the abuse.

As a matter of principle, I want to avoid the use of insulting language that derives its impact from racial, sexual, or gender identity, or from mental or physical disability.  I think we're all better than that.  A truly effective, devastating insult should bear on something worthy of insulting: namely, a person's lack of integrity.  I have taken the liberty to compile a short list of terms (with definitions) that I think should be considered more often by Americans in the throes of passionate rage:

Scoundrel: a dishonest or unscrupulous person.
Blackguard: a person, particularly a man, who behaves in a dishonorable or contemptible way.
Heel: an inconsiderate or untrustworthy person.
Punk: someone worthless or unimportant; a hoodlum.
Scum: a low, worthless, or evil person.
Miscreant: a vicious or depraved person.
Reprobate: a depraved, unprincipled, or wicked person.
Dastard: a mean, sneaking coward.

If you ask me, that's a nasty list!  There aren't many people I know who would enjoy being called any of these things.  But they don't really have the weight you'd expect from something as serious as an insult.  They certainly don't feel like real curses, the sort of thing that could get you sent to the principal's office, or thrown out of an especially genteel book club (maybe "scum," but not the rest).  In fact, words like "miscreant" almost sound like the opposite of an insult, the sort of thing an upper class person with delicate sensibilities might say to avoid giving offense.  That's not what I want to do here.  I want to be very offensive.

One common principle of insults seems to be that, in order to truly communicate that someone is detestable, you can't just say that they are.  You have to go beyond saying what they are and make what they are sound like something that no one will ever love, possibly because they are contaminated with some sort of contagious, weaponized germ.

There are some exceptions to this principle.  Calling someone something as simple as coward, thief, or liar can provoke a fistfight under the right conditions.  If the person I wish to insult is a liar (and they are), then it seems like I have a built-in advantage to my quest to be offensive.  The problem is, there aren't many words in English that mean "liar" but can't be spoken in polite company.  Oath breaker?  Dissembler?  Fabulist?  Deceiver?  Maybe if you throw in a good strong "fucking" to carry the load.

Nobody wants to sound unhip while delivering an insult: doing so insults oneself by implication.  I think that's why our pool of insults is so conservative, limited to a few old standbys and some unjust digs at marginalized groups.  Nobody wants to go out on a limb by committing to a word like miscreant if it will be perceived as dated or wimpy.  That's also why nobody avails themselves of classic Shakespearean skewers like "umuzzled tardy-gaited barnacle" or "fobbing whoreson coxcomb."  They may be thoroughly rude, but they're adventurous and untested.  Fucking asshole may be muted, but everyone gets the idea right away.

There is one school of insults in English that remains creative: the scatological insult.  A scatological insult does not really aim to describe its target; rather, it aims to disturb everyone in hearing range with unpleasant images, and the possibilities are positively unbounded.  If a more character-derived insult is something of a dueling sword, then a scatological insult is like some kind of radiological bomb.  My target may be a despicable heel, but I can do more damage to the surrounding environment if I call them a dribbling shitstain.  And sometimes, that's a fine thing to do.

In this case, I think it better to forgo the use of toilet imagery and stick with the descriptive, character-based insult.  In fact, I've decided to go with scoundrel, a word that doesn't get nearly enough serious use in this day and age.  Make no mistake, there are scoundrels among us.  They should be disparaged and degraded, but most of all they should be recognized for what they truly are.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Korean New Year, a little bit older

Here in South Korea, we just celebrated Seollal, or the Korean Lunar New Year.  Those of you who follow my Korea blog (I'm sure that's all of you) know that Tara and I had a fine adventure in Seoul last weekend, observing some new year's customs.  But there's one thing I didn't put down in the most recent blog post, a little custom which I'd like to talk about now.

In many east Asian countries, there is an alternative way of reckoning a person's age.  You might think that the question "how old are you" does not require much analysis, but like most things reated to counting, much depends on where you start.  Korea does have the western-style age system of counting completed years since the date of one's birth.  However, this is mostly a matter for the legal system: the traditional system is far more commonly used.

It goes like this.  On the day of your birth, you are considered to be one.  It's often said that this takes into account the preceding nine months of womb time, but I am not fully convinced that this is the reason; it may just be that the people who dreamt up this system didn't think that being less than one made sense.  So you start at one, and your age increases by one at a fixed point each year: not your own birthday, but rather the first day of the Lunar Year.

There are a couple of interesting consequences for this choice of counting.  Everyone born in the same year is the same age, of course, which is a little more convenient from an astrological point of view (and traditional astrology is by no means out of favor here).  It also means that the many babies born late in the year find themselves two years old within a few months of birth.  Koreans tend to count early childhood ages by days rather than years, but it's still a little disorienting to think of all those precocious agers out there.

And then, of course, there is the disorientation that comes into the humble western expatriate's life.  By western reckoning, I am twenty six years old (my birthday is in late February, so I am a few weeks from being twenty seven).  By Korean reckoning, however, I turned twenty eight last weekend, along with all my cohorts in the year of the Rabbit.

All of this, of course, is a very extended way of saying that I feel old and Korea is not helping.  I like being twenty six.  Rather, I don't want to be older than twenty six.  I'm still mourning the loss of twenty four.  I've spent the past year making peace with the inevitability of twenty seven.  And now all of a sudden, I'm twenty eight?  That is not cool.

Twenty eight is plenty young, I know.  And I'm out traveling the world, which is a suitably young-person-ish thing to do.  I don't really have that much cause to mourn a wasted youth (maybe a little, but certainly not "much").  But it takes you off guard, counting yourself older than usual.  It's like looking into a very scary, future-revealing mirror.  You may learn things you aren't ready to know.  You might accidentally trigger an early mid-life crisis.  Before you know it, you're riding an exploding motorcycle off an exploding dam.

Still, twenty eight isn't that bad so far.  I still have most of my hair, anyway.  But I should probably get out of here before my fellow Rabbits start turning thirty.