I was evaluating a Toastmasters meeting, when a speaker said that a particular situation "sucked."
When I presented my report to the club, I asked, "Was that term acceptable to you? I am really asking that question, because I know the root of that expression (in my inside voice: fellatio), and I would not use it. But that could be a generational and cultural bias on my part? What do you think?"
It was an interesting discussion, and the consensus is that "sucks" is the new "stinks" - a previously questionable term that has entered into acceptability.
In another example, Toastmaster magazine published a cover story titled Snafu Survival, about how to protect yourself from unexpected technical problems. I knew that someone would object to "snafu" as a World War II acronym for "situation normal, all fu**ed up." Sure enough, two members wrote to the magazine, asking if the editors really knew the origin of this word and questioned its appropriateness. One said that she would not even display the issue publicly. The editors responded that the dictionary defines this as a perfectly acceptable word.
I believe both instances bring up good lessons about the appropriateness of words. I suggest these guidelines:
- Don't be so hidebound as to ignore the evolution of the times and the current interpretation of the word in question.
- Still, be sensitive to your audience as to the sensitivities of your particular audience. That includes demographics and culture as well as age. For example, a synonym for "stingy" is "niggardly." I knew someone who thoughtlessly used this word to an African American audience.
- Ask people of different backgrounds what they think of a word as a way to learn, especially those of a different age group. Such folks teach me things all the time.
You should know that at time in Great Britain, this was the equivalent of the middle finger. However, I think you can safely make the gesture today. Though I don't know why you would find it useful.