Words and Their (Arbitrary?) Meaning

Matt Swisher
3 min readApr 27, 2022
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

John Wooden never used bad language, and he was the most successful coach in history.
~The Matheny Manifesto, Mike Matheny & Jerry B. Jenkins

I often wonder about the arbitrary nature of words. Why do we have certain words for certain things? Why do the words I put together in this sentence make any sense; and yet, I can use the exact same words in a different order and it will seem like gibberish?

Even looking at the previous sentence, I wonder if I punctuated it correctly. Though, I realize, that has more to do with grammar than words themselves. They do go hand in hand, however.

When you start thinking about words, it’s easy to fall into a existential crisis. What does anything mean, really?

And yet, as a society, we have some generally agreed upon words that are “bad”. How does this happen? Certainly, usage has a lot to do with it. For example, the word used for a cigarette in England is a homophobic slur in America. When did this happen? Why did this happen? Those are question for etymologists, I suppose.

Today’s quote reminds us of this societal norm to which we have somehow arrived in our world today.

I actually find it ironic to have come across this quote in particular, especially given the contrast between Matheny and his predecessor at the helm of the Cardinals. Mike Matheny and Mike Schildt have very different approaches when it comes to language. Schildt has no problem with so-called “bad” words. He’s a coach in San Diego these days, and just a couple weeks ago was under fire for something he said in a game against the Giants.

Now, I truly believe Schildt doesn’t have any malice when he uses these words. They are just words that have become part of his everyday vernacular. That’s not an excuse, just a bit of understanding as to where some people come from.

In our house, there’s some cussing from time to time. I’ll admit it. Our kids have slipped occasionally as they are getting their grasp of the English language. We can’t get too upset because they are just repeating what they have seen. But we’ve talked about how there are words that are just for adults. It’s worked for the most part… so far. They’re young still. We’ll see how it goes in the future.

I don’t have a big problem with “bad” language. It’s not something that I think people should use on a regular basis. In reality, it loses some of its bite when it’s just part of one’s regular language. I don’t know, though, maybe I’m just trying to justify some things.

In the end, I think words only have the power that we give them. There are absolutely some words I will not use. Anything that intentionally puts down a group of people is completely out of the question as far as I’m concerned. It’s one thing to call an individual a jerk… or some variant of the meaning. It’s a completely different thing to use overtly racist or homophobic language. I don’t think there’s ever an appropriate time for that.

What about you? What do you think about “bad” language? Is there a time and place? Is it part of your regular vernacular? I’d be interesting in hearing some other perspectives on this.



Matt Swisher

Just some guy who is looking to make my pocket of the world a better place. Life is a journey; let’s walk together and help each other along the way.