An adult, female private students of mine asked me in November to explain “harsh words.” When I heard her say, “I have a question. What does this expression mean?” as she wrote “harsh words” in her notebook I worried that I had spoken rudely to her and then forgotten about it, leaving her to stew and cook up a grand hatred of me. Was I on the verge of losing a nice private job?
Apparently, though, it was not that at all. It had to do with something at her workplace, where a female Japanese acquaintance was asked by an American friend for advice concerning “harsh words” spoken to him in English by another Japanese. It sounds complicated, doesn’t it? I never clearly understood the origin of the phrase, whether my student was asking me something or telling me something and, if she was asking me something then what she was asking for, precisely. A simple definition? An appropriate response, in English, after receiving harsh words? I don’t know.
What I did was to briefly try to describe the meaning of“harsh words,” and then wrote some examples in her notebook.
Harsh Words: deliberately rude language; hurtful; insulting; pejorative; offensive; angry; belligerent remarks.
Thomas: You’re an ugly, stupid cow!
Maiko: Well, you’re a lazy idiot!
Thomas: Oh, really? Your cooking is awful.
Maiko: You have offensive body odor.
Thomas: You’re worthless.
Maiko: Oh! The baby isn’t your son!!!
Maiko: I’m leaving.
Thomas: For another man?
Maiko: No - a woman.
Thomas: Get out!
Maiko: I’m taking the TV and the waterbed.
Thomas: Good riddance. And, by the way, your cat didn’t run away. When you were visiting your sister last month I took it to the vet to be put to sleep.
Maiko: You bastard!
Thomas: Oh, and I slept with your mother - last night.
We read and re-read this little dialogue several times until our stomachs hurt and it wasn’t funny any more. Now I think my student understands a little bit what “harsh words” are.