Whose Language is it Anyway?

Tristan Axelrod

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In my previous article for this magazine, I published a humorous description of a stereotypical, ceaselessly annoying college student whom I termed the ‘classroom douchebag.’ This student tends to desperately seek attention by steering class discussions towards his/her own interests, life experiences, sexuality, etc. I was proud of this article, and feedback was overwhelmingly positive—I also submitted it to Collegehumor.com, where it garnered a ‘national featured article’ distinction and was published on the front page.

I thought that my article was relevant, witty, and innocuous. But of course, someone rained on my parade. Not a big surprise. Criticism came in the form of a comment on the Debatable website. One reader wrote:

At the risk of Tristan calling me a “douchebag,” I will now steer the conversation toward gender issues. The word “douchebag” is a term which is offensive to women. To call someone a “douchebag” is to suggest that that person is only worthy of cleaning out a dirty vagina. I appreciate that Tristan is trying to be humorous, but “douchebag” is by far not a humorous word. There are a multitude of other words which Tristan could use and I highly encourage him to do so. Given the current discussion on campus about appropriate terminology, Tristan might as well have said, “Those who steer the conversation toward gender issues are so gay!”

Now let me be the first to say that I apologize to anyone who was truly offended by my article. I was not targeting individuals. I hinted in its closing that I am guilty of many classroom douchebag tendencies as well, and I at least attempted to avoid using discriminatory terms. I think the real issue raised by this comment is that of language appropriation. At a place as demonically politically correct as Middlebury College, it is often difficult to tell if certain words are acceptable at certain levels of discourse. I’d like to examine a few contentious words here and share with you what a few minutes of internet-searching can tell us.

Douchebag: Coming from the French verb meaning to shower or wash, douching is the practice of cleansing the vulva with a mixture of sanitary liquids (water, vinegar, iodine, others depending on preference) that are squirted into the vagina from the aforementioned bag. What my smarmy dissenter failed to mention, however, is that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the majority of doctors polled recommend against douching as in fact being unsanitary and causing serious health risks—douching may clean the vagina in the short-term, but it also undermines the body’s own cleansing process, killing ‘good’ bacteria and skin cells and washing out natural lubricants. This can lead to greatly increased risk of infection and birth complications.

Similar to baby formula and pesticides, douches are marketed to consumers as a product conducive to good health and safety, while in fact they can cause serious harm. So, far more than suggesting that a person ‘is only worthy of cleaning out a dirty vagina,’ I was suggesting that the actions of those described in my article are not only distasteful, but also misguided and detrimental to the general well-being of the public. Is this not a fair suggestion for certain individuals?

There’s a specific reason that I still want to use words like ‘douchebag’ and it is personal, having nothing to do with denotations and connotations. It happens that I’m a musician. I’ve also dabbled in poetry on occasion. I love languages because of their innate beauty, and I take a very musical approach to any speech or text I create. As a musician, composer, poet, and writer, I get good grades, good audience feedback, and I’ve won my fair share of awards. So I feel qualified to say that there’s a reason words like ‘douchebag’ are staples of my repertoire. They are rhythmically and melodically satisfying. You’ll notice that those who propose alternative terms (like “jerk”) tend to propose words or word combinations that are cumbersome and flat.
You can see, perhaps, a reason why “The Classroom Douchebag” would be a bigger hit than “The Classroom Jerk” or “The Classroom Asswipe.” The first is rhythmically unsatisfying, and the second inserts a distracting rhyme and ends on a weak syllable. In contrast, the word ‘douchebag’ is connotatively perfect while providing the proper rhythmic and melodic contour to the title.

That brings me to the real point of this article: language is not and should never be overly concerned with denotation and connotation. People who pretend it should be so and attempt to force their will on others are gay. Ha! I’m so sorry.

Language is the property of people who use it. Obviously, if language is employed in political or other discourses, the boundaries are more restrictive because strict denotative and connotative substance can have real-life implications. But the vast majority of the time, language is merely self-expression— awesome in its power to uplift the self, but not so important in the grand scheme of things-to-be-offended-by. I would not argue that people have the right to offend others while expressing themselves. But people do have the right to make the choice to risk doing so if there is an expressive need to employ language in a certain way. To simplify: I am going to do what I want with my language, and I dare you to try and stop me.

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3 Responses to “Whose Language is it Anyway?”


  1. 1 Anonymous December 20, 2007 at 7:38 pm

    Bravo, Axelrod.

  2. 2 Tristan February 5, 2008 at 4:21 am

    Thanks, anonymous. If I may take a jab at the editors, I’ll assert that the original 10-page article was much better, as it took a much larger and better researched view on the assumption of language. The focus on ‘douchebag’ makes this more of a stab at my original detractor than I intended. But it’s a student magazine, what can you do…


  1. 1 Senator Franken v. Mendacious Douchebags « Red Tory v.3.0 Trackback on December 15, 2009 at 4:11 am

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