Offending onions

(Roman Pilipey/Pool Photo via AP)

Have you ever seen anyone go bat-crazy because of words?

I know I have. It was a cool January afternoon when I first heard my sweet, adorable three-year-old daughter Likha breathe fire.

I was reading her a Cinderella story. In response to that scene where, at the stroke of midnight, the princess left one of her crystal shoes, my daughter hissed, “Oh, shit!”

I nearly fell out of bed. Her words boomed and rang in my ears like some improvised explosive device set to go off in an elevator. It left me stunned for about a minute or two. All this time my little baby girl sat there, eyes rolling and with a huge smile on her face.

Something told me from the blush on her face that she knew what the words meant. Well, not exactly as the slang for “excrement,” but an expression depicting wonder and surprise. I automatically concluded that she probably may have heard me say it numerous times, what with my having loose lips and penchant for foul language.

I pulled Likha gently to me, and while everyone in the room expected me to give my daughter the obligatory tongue-lashing, I whispered, landing a kiss on her cheek, “Yeah, baby, shitty as it is at this point, remember, the story isn’t over yet.”

I’m a guy who takes his freedoms seriously. And for what this experience may be worth, I told myself that I’d rather have my daughter learn verbal archery from me than some two-bit skunk of a boy who couldn’t string two words without bleeding in the nose.

I was somewhere between six to eight years old when my parents carted me off to Naga City, Camarines Sur to live there for two years. Shortly after, they enrolled me at Naga Parochial School. We settled to our daily routine in an apartment right smack in the middle of the city.

One of their fears was that I may not be able to cope with the new culture and new language. They thus, took time to teach me certain Bikolnon words, which at the start I had a hard time committing to memory.

But even as a kid, I was hot-wired to learn, and learn things as quickly as I can. After my first day in school I scurried home with a bag of words in tow: “buday,” meaning vagina, “boto” penis, “kado” sex, and “masimot” meaning “I hope some aswang eats you alive!”

It took me the stretch of roughly seven days to learn Bikol’s grandest cuss words, to my mother’s utter disbelief and my father’s boyish cheer.

I have no memory of my parents restricting my access to words and phrases as a child, in whatever language, despite my not belonging to a literary family. My Dad encouraged me to read books no straight-shooting parent would ever hand over to an eight-year-old child without the possibility of jail time in the future.

By the time I was 14, I had a cache of words and phrases—including foul language, both in Tagalog and English—that could stand toe to toe with the military hardware of the U.S. Marines.

I was once told by my dad that knowing words is half the battle won. Thank God for my father who indoctrinated me in the fundamentals of always having a dictionary by my side. To know a new word every day and use it in a sentence: that was my boot camp training.

“When you read, young man,” he once said, “read with the eye of a falcon. Don’t just read for entertainment. Learn how the writer used the word and for what reason. Search for its meaning. Learn the skills needed to construct a beautiful sentence. A man who can express himself really well is a man who is armed and dangerous.”

I didn’t have the slightest idea that I would one day take on the world, at least my immediate world, as a journalist and a writer. Back then, words were a matter of simple curiosity for me, how they began and what triggered their particular usage in a particular language.

It took me several decades and about a thousand and one written pieces to know the power words hold between each letter. Think of the power and force that holds positively-charged protons in their place even when the same science says that a positive charge repels others with a positive charge. It’s no different from the power inherently found in words.

No wonder dictators and tyrants have an aversion for specific words and terms. The power of words are the only thing that stands between them and the realization of their nefarious ambitions.

The world today has turned topsy-turvy. For some yet unknown reason, people have become too sensitive, too easily-hurt for their own good. This triggered a move to ban certain words and phrases for their implicit effect on some people or groups of people.

In a report last week, Qantas Airlines moved to ban “gender inappropriate language” among the cabin crew to avoid offending the LGBTI community. According to the report by Helen Coffey of The Independent, “a new information booklet issued to employees bans gender-specific words such as ‘honey,’ ‘love,’ and ‘guys’, while the terms ‘partner,’ ‘spouse,’ and ‘parents’ are preferred above the more exclusionary ‘Husband and wife’ or ‘mum and dad’.

While it’s only proper for people to respect the LGBTI community and defend their rights as I have done so many times in the past, it should not be at the expense of those who do not share the same views. For instance, I am husband to my wife, and anyone who thinks or says otherwise will have to deal with me.

Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, also made an unprecedented statement recently, banning the use of certain words from the Chinese microblogging site Weibo. According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which sourced this news item from the California-based bilingual news website China Digital Times last Feb. 26, the list of banned words and phrases is almost endless.

“As to the list banning certain words and terms,” the report said, “these include ‘Animal Farm,’ ‘disagree,’ ‘incapable ruler,’ ‘I oppose,’ and ‘go against the tide,’ among many others. The year ‘1984’ is also banned as it possibly alludes to George Orwell’s other dystopian novel, ‘1984’ as well as ‘Winnie the Pooh’ whose images have been used in the past to mock Xi Jinping.”

The ban, the report added, came in the wake of “a list of amendments to the Chinese Constitution.” Sounds familiar?

In the battle for hearts and minds, to speak words freely and without fear will always be mistaken as an act of hostility by greedy and ambitious persons no matter how tender or truthful these words may be. These days, people will find reason to be offended one way or the other.

But that’s just it: no group of people has any right to demand respect for what they believe by moving to disregard the beliefs of those who think otherwise. Case in point? A woman had recently propositioned a court (or was that the Justice League?) to ban the word “man” because it offends some people.

Well, sorry to burst your bubble, lady, but truth is, not all men are jerks in the same token as not all women are… never mind.

In other words, in describing people who get offended easily as onion-skinned, shouldn’t we also worry about offending onions? Your answer is as good as mine. G





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