In 1966 Lenny Bruce was arrested for uttering nine obscene words. Most of them you would still not utter in polite company although three or four of them you probably heard sometime between breakfast and your second cup of coffee this morning.
Then, in 1973, George Carlin uttered his famous “Seven Dirty Words,” words that he claimed could not be uttered on television although in fact there was no such rule. Carlin (or was it the broadcaster?) was sued for obscenity. In a close Supreme Court decision the obscenity laws were upheld and broadcast television and radio have been kept antiseptic ever since. Today all seven of Carlin’s “dirty words” remain verboten.
I seem to recall that Carlin added an eighth word around that time: “Bomb.” It was the Vietnam War era and Carlin was making the point that “bomb” might be more obscene – particularly when preceded by the word “napalm” – than any of the obscene words that were prohibited. They were, after all, only words.
I hope Bruce and Carlin will not be offended if I add another four-letter word to their lists. Unlike their words, the word that I have in mind is permitted on television and radio. It is in widespread use in Board rooms. Politicians utter it from the podium. It is found in white papers and articles in sober academic journals. It appears in newspaper headlines.
Despite its widespread use the word has been proven to be more dangerous than bombs, verbal or incendiary. It has the power to defeat armies, the strength of a football squad, the kinetic force of a rocket on the launch pad.
You might say that it’s, well, just a word. Not even a noun or a verb; more like a modifier, designed to minimize the significance of an event or a challenge.
The word is “just.”
As in: “This building will just take a year to build.” “That upgrade will just take a few weeks.” “That contract just requires a small revision.” “I just have one more question.” “I just had one drink.”
How many times have I groaned in despair upon hearing that insidious four-letter bromide.
No word does more to raise expectations and then shatter them without mercy. No word does more to puncture one’s ego, burst one’s illusions, destroy one’s fondest hopes. No word makes it seem so easy and yet is just so hard.
Ironically the word’s secondary meaning is so useful: Fair, even-handed, honest, good.
How much better if the word “just” had just one meaning connoting all that is right and pure and objective in the world. Sadly that is just not to be. The word has an uncomfortable tendency to creep into just about every idea we express. We may just have to ban it. For try as we may to use the word “just” to mean just “just” I fear that we will continue to just forget that the primary meaning of “just” must be to be honest and transparent and continue to just use it as a modifier of what comes just after.
No, we must learn to do without “just.” We need to adopt an international English language convention to eradicate the term. It’s just too damn tempting. We should criminalize the use of “just.” Then we must just enforce the prohibition. We must just erase it from the lexicon. We must just omit any reference in our dictionaries.
“Just.” Highlight. Double click. Back space. Delete.