Thanks to historical and cultural protocols, there are certain words that are difficult to pronounce in public without provoking discomfort.
For example, ‘Jew.’
It seems people will do anything to avoid saying ‘Jew.’ Scientologists recently distributed brochures on the UCLA campus declaring among other things that their religion was appropriate for Christians and Muslims.” They noted that it was appropriate also for “…people of the Hebrew faith.” Five words instead of one, all in an effort to avoid voicing: “Jew.” Somewhat less dreadful than saying ‘Jew’ is to say ‘Jewish.’ Were someone to ask me if I’m Jewish, I would say, ‘No.’ I’m not Jew-ish but a Jew. ‘Ish’ suggests ‘sort of’ or ‘approximately.’ “Let’s meet six-ish,” for example, implied that the appointment is not precisely at six but a bit earlier or a little later.
Even I, who belong to no synagogue and do not observe the High Holy Days, am not approximately a Jew. Indeed, every cell in my body, my writing, my teaching, every act in my life is informed by my having been born a Jew. ‘Jew’ as a modifier, however, is a slur. It’s okay to visit a ‘Jewish doctor’ but not a ‘Jew doctor.’ ‘Jewish food’ is okay but ‘Jew food’ is hate speech. Moreover, ‘Jew’ is only one example of language that is considered awkward, even if it should not be.
For example, ‘penis.’
Sometime in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, my wife and I went to a Writers Guild blood drive event held at the once-legendary, now-long-closed Scandia restaurant on the Sunset Strip. The Guild had partnered with a Scandinavian men’s club, the Viking Society, in support of The American Red Cross. When we arrived at the bloodmobile parked outside the eatery, we were told (astonishingly enough) that they could take my blood but not my bride’s. That is, they were taking the blood only of men.
I’m not making this up. I was, of course, outraged. I argued vigorously with the administrators, and a small crowd gathered. One of the Guild members supervising the event explained to me in a tone reeking of patience and reason that the Vikings, being an all-male union, insisted that the drive was only for men.
“You’re telling me you won’t take her blood,” I said, my voice rising, “because she doesn’t have a penis?” In unison, everyone stepped a half mile back. Suddenly we were standing all alone.
Still more awkward than ‘penis’ is ‘vagina.’
Even Ensler’s immortal The Vagina Monologues has gone a long way toward desensitizing the word, helping bring to it toleration, imbuing it with acceptance within the universe of civilized discourse. In the summer of 1984, however, publicly to pronounce ‘vagina’ was an enterprise weighted with awkwardness. That is why we were more than merely curious when we heard our then-four-year-old daughter ask us at the breakfast table, “What’s ‘point vagina?’”
Her mother and I looked at each other and then at her, wide-eyed. “What did you say, Sweetie?”
“’Point vagina,’” she said again. “What’s ‘point vagina?’ Why do they always say ‘point vagina?’”
“Who?” we asked her. “Who says ‘point vagina?’”
Clearly, she was becoming agitated and uncomfortable. “You know,” she said. “On TV. On TV they’re always saying ‘point vagina.’”
“But, honey, we watch TV,” we said, “and we don’t hear anyone say ‘point vagina.’”
“Yeah,” she complained, frustrated and on the verge of tears. “On TV they say it all the time. ‘Point vagina. Point vagina.’” We could see that there was no useful purpose in pursuing this further at that moment, so, for the time being, we just let the issue drop.
That evening the three of us settled in before the TV for the latest installment of the Olympic Games, set that year in our own hometown. At that moment the Swedes happened to be playing the Chinese in volleyball. The Swedish team scored. The announcer said, “Point for Sweden.”
Now the Chinese scored. The announcer said, “Point for China.”
Our precious girl looked at us and said, “See?”
Richard Walter is a screenwriter, author of best selling fiction and nonfiction, celebrated storytelling educator, associate dean, entertainment industry expert and longtime professor and chairman of the graduate screenwriting program at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Professor Walter offers an exclusive online 6-week course. Here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to train with the world’s most accomplished screenwriting educator. And, he’ll read your script if you complete it within 1 month of the class! Learn more at http://richardwalter.com/workshop/ and sign up for updates by joining Richard Walter’s email newsletter list: contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Richard Walter 2018