The other day I was lost for words. Yeah, I know, it doesn’t happen that often. In my usually caring way, I wanted to tell someone — a female — to show some courage.
“Man up!” I said.
She gave me a weak smile as if she didn’t really get where I was coming from.
I tried again.
“You know, grow some balls … Grow a pair!” I said enthusiastically, cupping the air to throw some extra weight behind my words.
She looked perturbed.
“Don’t be a … pussy?!”
I winced. It was all a little awkward.
It wasn’t until I got home that I really undressed our conversation. Why had she looked a bit off? I hadn’t said anything bad — I hadn’t meant to anyway. Could it have been me implying that she should somehow change gender and turn into a man? Probably not, but the more I thought about it, the weirder those turns of phrase seemed. Why the hell do we say it like that? Do we mean that women can’t be brave?
No — not intentionally, anyway. So that got me thinking: if I don’t want to insinuate that men are inherently more ballsy … I mean, courageous, should I just stop using those colloquialisms? Does it even matter what words we use? Isn’t it just the feeling and idea that’s important, rather than the words we use to express them?
Not according to FIFA.
Last week, the global football body fined the Mexican Football Federation $20,000 because some of its fans routinely shout puto (often translated as faggot) at opposition goalkeepers as they run up to take goal kicks.
It’s meant as a bit of a joke, but it’s not the first time the chant has caused offence. At last year’s World Cup, the now time-honoured tradition was criticised by many who claimed the chant was homophobic. Many articles came out at the time addressing the issue, including Juan Carlos Pérez Salazar’s fantastic piece for the BBC, but the crowds continued to shout.
The thing is, the word puto is so deeply ingrained in Mexican lexicon and it has so many meanings that most people I know don’t see anything wrong with it.
“Ese puto coche me caga.” = I fucking hate that car.
“Lo dejaron bien puteado.” = He got a kicking.
“Estoy emputado.” = I’m pissed off.
On the face of it, in none of these examples does the word mean faggot. Puto is about as flexible and frequent as any profanity you can care to think of. It’s clear that if that was the original meaning of the word, times have changed and things have moved on.
So does it even matter that people are shouting puto at a goalkeeper to try to put him off?
I reckon it probably does.
Perhaps the most frequent use of puto would go something like this: no seas puto, or don’t be a pussy. In other words, man up. Here, the word is used to attack and denigrate and bring into question the person’s courage (read masculinity). And this is exactly the context in which it is used at football matches.
Words by themselves do little or no damage — they simply represent a human need, or a part of our history. It’s how they are used and expressed that creates problems. It’s not that we should ban words in some draconian sweep of the language. But we should be cognizant of which words we choose to use and how we use them, in the same way that we might use some words with friends that we wouldn’t use with our grandparents, because we’re aware of the impact of context on meaning.
I reckon for a lot of people it’s a bit of a joke. And of course, it’s important to be able to poke fun at an issue to undermine its validity. But it’s an incredibly fine line. Often the closer you get to that line, the funnier the joke. But when you start laughing at someone because you’ve called them a puto rather than laughing at yourself for having called that person a puto, you know you’ve probably not got it right.
Of course, this isn’t just an issue for Mexico, but the entire world. For some reason, many of us still care about who other people find attractive. And while this insecurity prevails, I reckon it might be a good idea to hold off on the putos and pussys for a while.
That then raises the question: what the hell do we say instead? How about woman up? Or grow a pair of breasts? … Argh, balls to it!