This week I used the f-word in a conversation with my grandchild. Not the four-letter f-word; that one continues to grow weaker with each use in its tiresome march toward banality. I used the other one, the three-letter f-word, which according to my grandchild, isn’t nice.
We were poodles at the time, so we had to call our lunch “dog food.” One minute we were talking about how poodles enjoy eating worms, the grandchild’s take on our pesto pasta; and the next minute, we were discussing Santa Claus and pregnant women. If you have ever talked to a poodle, you understand that they have wide-ranging interests. When we talked about Santa, I said his belly was fat. That led to the “not nice” comment.
I agreed and said we shouldn’t call people fat. It’s fine for imaginary people, but real people come in all sizes. Some are big and some are small, I said. We shouldn’t call bigger people fat.
Satisfied that I had learned my lesson about calling people fat, the little poodle said, “We can tell big people, ‘You look fat, but you’re not fat.’”
Small children and poodles are literalists. They understand the denotation, literal meaning, of a word; but they can also understand the connotations, other words and emotions associated with a word. Fat in its literal meaning refers to the size of a person’s body; but it is stuffed with connotations. Fat is more often used as a pejorative, a sign of moral failure, and implies that a person is lazy, dull, or stupid.
We have many synonyms for fat: corpulent, obese, chubby, plump, thick-set, and pudgy, just to name a few. But “fat” appears in print earlier than all the rest. It comes from the Old English word fǽtt and shows up in writings around the late 9th century.
In every day speech, we favor words with Old English roots. According to the University of Texas website, half of the thousand most commonly used words in English come from Old English. That includes pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and all those short, direct words like fast, good, wonder, water, and “word” itself. You can’t open your mouth without one of those ancient words strolling out.
Talking about fat is delicate business because the connotations keep getting in the way. We can use words like overweight, big, and heavy to talk about body size, but “fat” will still be there. Eliminating it from our bodies is possible; eliminating it from our lexicon is near impossible.
In the U.S., about one-third of our children have more stored fat than they need. At school and on the playground they hear the three-letter f-word all of the time. Name-calling causes a lot of emotional pain and suffering, so we need to teach children not to call other people fat. But having too much fat on a body causes a lot of physical pain and suffering, so we need to feed our children real food; then they will be healthy and won’t get called names.
My grandchild and I went to the zoo after lunch. By the time we got home, we were otters, hungry ones, so we munched on carrots and tangerines, and talked about the animals we had seen.
We feed our children both information and food. We can teach them to speak nicely about others, and we can teach them to eat good food. Both are necessary, and both are nice, that is to say, in good taste.