Someone should burn her face.

Words are funny, the English language certainly has many odd words. Many people learn English do say it’s harder than many other languages due to the pronunciation versus spelling (Though, Trough, Thought, Tough) But it’s quite normal to see the oddness in a language that isn’t your own. The Masculine/Feminine aspect of French is very difficult for me, or the way German may have a single word for a very complex concept or some African dialects sound to me like the same few syllables over and over again, but that’s just because I haven’t learned them and I don’t understand the intricacies.

The older you get learning a new language gets harder, this is just due to the way our minds do get stuck in certain ways as we age and lose some of the capacity to take on new skills that children do. This is normal.

In English there are many words which both conflict and mean the same thing, maybe with conceptual differences but they exist. Unfiltered and filtered are both good things depending on your perspective. If you live in a city where water doesn’t taste good, or is heavy with lime scale or a country where the water is contaminated and undrinkable you want it to be filtered, but if you are drinking a fresh orange juice you want that unfiltered to ensure it has all the wonderful nutrients. Filtering removes impurities, whereas unfiltered retains goodness. Both words can be successfully used to advertise different products. Neither is inherently good or bad as the context is important.

This use of words to tell us something about something is simply a function of language.

This is just the same way in which big or small might be good depending on context. You’ll want a big burger if you’re hungry but a small burger if you’re on a diet. Context is everything, in everything.

There’s very few things in ordinary life where context isn’t important. There are of course non-negotiables, like murder. Is murder is bad regardless of context? Maybe not, in my mind a person murdering their abuser may in fact feel justified emotionally if not legally (is murder the right word for that?). Or maybe you feel a revenge killing is just another killing and either way it’s bad. That’s a very tricky subject and what is legal or illegal versus what is right and wrong isn’t necessarily clear cut. The recent case in South London of an elderly man killing an intruder in his house has caused great controversy[1]. A man in his 70’s is robbed, defends himself and kills his robber, then people post tributes to the thief on the man’s wall which are then torn down as people say it’s disrespectful to the elderly man who was just defending himself, then others say it’s disrespectful to the deceased for people to pull down the tribute… Robbing and terrifying an elderly man is bad, killing someone for theft is bad, paying tribute is bad, not paying tribute is bad… Once feelings are involved good and bad become even more complex, context is different for both sides.

Hate is a powerful word. If you hate a person, that is a deep statement. If you hate parsnips however, people who love parsnips may be surprised but more than likely they’ll think it amusing. Hating a person isn’t amusing at all. Either because your feelings are so strong it makes people recoil or that person is indeed hateful, which is a rare trait but one we all know of.

We need words like hate, we need to be able to express strong feelings. Maybe you don’t mean hate, it may mean you just feel strongly about disliking something. Most of us have uttered the phrase “I want to kill that guy” or something similar. You might say that about an annoying person at work, or on the bus. It doesn’t mean at all that you want to actually kill them or have any intention it’s just using language to express great annoyance. Most people wouldn’t assume actual murderous intent if you said such a thing. People will see the context based on the environment, people involved and subject of the conversation.

I believe that we need phrases like that to express ourselves, it’s part of the art of language, part of being refined. I see profanity as part of this art as well. Many might think of swearing as crass but I see it as creative use of language, why not use all the words we have to express what we need to. I do swear a lot but it’s the timing and purposeful use of profanity that makes it both fun and perfect for making a point very clear. And who exactly decided that swear words were bad? Why should I follow their rules?

Once in a meeting with a social worker and a former colleague, I swore about a particular issue, if memory serves.

“There’s no fucking way I’m putting my staff through that shit, its fucking wrong”

Afterwards my colleague asked, how do you get away with swearing at social workers and why? My answer was simple.

“I’m right, and they won’t forget this conversation”

It was an important discussion and pertinent that my point is made, sometimes you’ve got no time to be polite but I didn’t insult anyone, I didn’t swear at anyone, no one was harmed and In fact probably prevented harm.

I have sworn at many people, usually cyclists cutting me off as I cross the road or nearly running me over on the footpath, I’ve certainly sworn about people who frustrate me and when you’re in close company you can say things to your friends that you might not say openly so you can express those feelings. It is very important to express these things and not bottle it up and friends are there to hear each other’s ideas, even if they may not be politically correct…

Politically correct is another odd phrase and has come mean different things. What it means is socially acceptable ways of talking about other people. It used to be generally accepted to use a word like fag, which means both cigarette and gay man. It’s not OK to call a gay man a fag anymore, gay men can use it but others cannot. That may confuse some people, particularly some older people stuck in their ways.

One of my students referred to Asian people as Paki’s the other week, he’s an older man and claimed he didn’t know it was offensive. We explained why it was offensive but also knew that it was socially acceptable within his family to say that, he never realised it was an insult.[2]

Recently sexism has been gaining a great deal of attention and the use of certain words are under scrutiny, bitch and pussy are words men use often without thought but women are often offended by them, it’s now politically incorrect to use them. Many men and some women will complain about this, just words right? Maybe not, there was a time when a certain word was used to refer to black people by white people…[3]

It’s easy to jump to assumptions about a person’s mind-set based on the words they use but it is only one factor in judging someone’s values but it’s usually the one we focus on. A person could be a great human, generous, kind, helpful and never done a bad thing in their life but in a moment of frustration, anger or idiocy utters a few words that will stay with them forever. If those words are typed and published on the internet then even more so, there’s evidence and it won’t take much for people to get angry.

Words are fun and confusing and open to multiple interpretations. Additionally, we must look at the context in which words are used and it does matter who says them. I can say what I like, but I may need to be ready for the consequences of certain words. Something said as a joke does put it in a certain context, but who says that joke also matters.

It’s not always easy to navigate the rules and many people make mistakes.

Waiting to cross a road near work recently two teenaged males walked past me chatting. I would guess between 15 and 17, they were both quite tall and wearing school uniforms.

Boy 1: “She doesn’t know when to shut up”

Boy 2: “She’s too confident with her mouth, someone should burn her face”

I hope I don’t need to explain what’s wrong with that statement but it does raise a great deal of questions.

The primary question is with the words “someone should burn her face” These two young men are still learning to navigate the world so haven’t figured out the power of words yet.

Do they understand how horrific it sounds to suggest someone’s face gets burned? In the UK there has been a significant increase in acid attacks and the very gruesome results have been shown frequently in the news, laws are changing around the availability of caustic liquids. It’s a big problem and terrifying[4].

They may not mean they literally want to burn her face. It might mean something like “Someone should put her in her place” a suggestion with no intention of them acting on it, but maybe hoping someone else will.

Clearly whether there’s an intention to act or not the attitude is horrible and very sexist. I reflected on this snippet of conversation and did wonder if it was just teenaged bravado, saying stuff to sound tough. Teenaged boys say horrible things all the time. As a teenager nothing was off limits when it came to having a laugh and it wasn’t till my friends and I were older we started to realise the impact of our choice of words. This wasn’t a joke, it was a very casual conversation but nevertheless a serious one.

Should the implication have been about “putting a woman in her place” this would be bad enough, and shows the attitude that young men have. I never really saw a difference in genders in regards to how people are treated but many young men are brought up to see women as inferior and the fact one should speak up confidently is an affront to them. That is absurd and is more a reflection of how unconfident they are about their masculinity.

Young men are often violent, I certainly acted in ways when young I would never now. School yard fights were brutal and with levels of aggression I don’t wish to experience again. They do think differently about harming people, empathy hasn’t matured yet[5] But even then the idea of burning someone’s face is excessive. In the UK violence amongst male teenagers (females too, but not to the same extent) is a serious problems with the above mentioned use of corrosives and knives and occasionally guns. Most often these incidents are related to gang violence, drug deals and postcode turf wars but sometimes it’s random and involving very young people. In 2018 the violent crime rate has increased significantly amongst young people after going down several years ago.

There has been a great deal of debate around this, with many theories as to why. Some say the lack of funding for youth clubs and programs is a factor, which may help but the existence of youth clubs doesn’t directly stop people being violent. The violence comes almost exclusively from people living in poor areas, so poverty is clearly a factor. Poverty can easily lead young men into crime, being immersed in crime can lead to violence. Many young people in the UK seem to feel they are at war with each other, with society. I remember my youth in Hamilton, NZ and being angry and feeling stuck like I couldn’t get out but I did, these young people living in London have vast opportunities in front of them that they cannot see. Some blame the schools, the parents, racism. All of these are factors but none of it makes someone want to burn another person’s face with acid.

Maybe the two young men were just talking in an ugly way, using words to express strong feelings. Maybe they have a casual attitude to violence or maybe they will act. I of course will report to their school but maybe words are just words and maybe as a man in my late 30’s I’m just out of touch with the way teenagers speak, but the statistics of teenaged violence is terrible and us adults need to teach our boys to respect women and ensure they don’t need to speak that way.




[2] He definitely knew it was a bad word to use, he claimed ignorance but is a genuinely nice person.

[3] I used to find that word easy to say and use, as I’ve aged I do completely understand why I shouldn’t and it now makes me uncomfortable, which is why I didn’t just say it…


[5] I’ve spoken of this many times, we do need to regard the way children behave differently to adults.


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