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Swear Words

August 1, 2011

Swear WordsI just witnessed (and participated in the very tail end of) a twitter conversation devoted to the permissibility or impermissibility of swear words. The contention was that when one guy hears someone using swear words, he immediately views them as less intelligent of a person.

I’ve heard this argument expanded…something like: there are so many words in the English language…why must one use those words?

I come at it from a different background. Swear words seem exotic, musical, melodic, and mature to me. Why? Because when I was growing up, they were either forbidden (in the Mormon church setting and community) or were reserved for adults (even if people slipped and said certain words, they made sure not to say them around adults.)

In fact, it seems to me that minced oaths or near swear words are the ones that cause me to reconsider a person. Minced oaths have this dual effect of ruining the flow of one’s language and of making one sound like a child. Seriously.

I guess I have a couple of stories. One was from my early teenage days. I was at a mutual activitity…I don’t know what it was, but I was upset and no one was paying attention to me. So I let out one horrendous word…I don’t even remember which one it was.

I can assure you that got people’s attention. I think I had to talk with the Bishop about it. And then I had to talk with my dad about it too, but my dad was like, “Well, if he felt he had to use that kind of language, maybe it was a serious issue that should’ve been dealt with.” Yeah, +1 point to dad.

(For the record, my parents were never shy with cussing. I don’t want to give any of you that impression.)

That’s one thing I miss about my Mormon days of youth. Not only did curse words have melody…but they had impact. Like, if I wanted to exaggerate something, those words had special effect. The problem is…since everyone else overuses them, they don’t have any impact at all to most of the others who hear them.

That was part of my contribution to the twitter conversation. At some point, people remarked about the absurdity of some uses of swear words…they just don’t make sense! For example, what is the phrase “what the f***” supposed to mean? One could argue that one is just gratuitously using bad language just to be outrageously offensive.

My counter was…words don’t exist in a vacuum. The supposed absurdity of these uses is actually a shift in meaning. People don’t intended to use these words to be outrageously offensive, and that’s why you can’t really look at that phrase and decode what it’s supposed to mean. The f-word and d-word and other words are more intensifiers…kinda like “literally.” (95% of the time when people use “literally” these days, they specifically do not mean “literally” at all…and they don’t mean to mean literally. Language prescriptivists get upset about all of this, saying we are “using the words incorrectly” and “cheapening” them.)

But to my ear, it seems like this new use improves flow. Sometimes, you need that kind of emphasis, without literally describing that emphasis. (Quick: did I use “literally” “correctly” in that last sentence?)

…and here comes my next anecdote.

One day in my adult life (feels weird talking about this), I said something about some “effing b-word.” I know, I know, you will all disapprove of me for my wanton (minced) misogyny, but a weird thing happened…I became aware the moment I said that of what I had said.

It was such a clunky phrase to be saying “b-word.” (Not what it refers to, but “beeeeeee wurrrd.”) And it was really sad, considering I was responding in a conversation to people who had — in that same conversation — used the actual words. What was I worried about? Who was I trying to “impress”?


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  1. When used very sparingly, swear words can have a wonderful, even surprising effect, but that effect is lost when swearing is common. And the surprise of humor is intensified when an “unusual’ impolite word is used in conjunction with clever adjectives. Example: the Monty Python architect sketch wherein John Cleese (master of this sort of thing) shouts, “Shut your festering gob, you tit!”

    Cleese is the one responsible for the French Castle Soldier’s imaginative curses “Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries.” and the dismissive “I fart in your general direction!” He truly used language to great comedic effect precisely because the combinations were rare, unexpected and imaginative, and used often unusual naughty words such as calling a man a tit.

    One of my favorites:

    “Your kind really makes me puke, you vacuous, malodorous, toffee-nosed heap of parrot droppings!” I memorized that line when I was younger just because I liked the sound of it. Calling your adversary a sack of shit is one thing; specifying what kind of shit and from a specific caged bird is downright creative. (It wasn’t until years later that I learned that the reference to “toffee-nosed” was another way of saying “hook-nosed Jew”, which is merely insulting in that form, but clever when described as a chunk of dripping toffee.)

  2. When I went into the Army, I had a hard time being taken seriously by my fellow trainees at Fort Benning because I, as a good upstanting Mormon man, didn’t swear. But the use of cusses was like an actual bona fide dialect where you swear casually for emphasis, which means not-swearing means not-emphasis. About six weeks in I got fed up with it and started doing as the Romans and suddenly people started listening to me and aking what I said seriously.

    Were I an officer, I’m sure it would have been different, but as an enlisted infantry soldier, not-swearing was actually inappropriate and led to miscommunication.

  3. Not cursing when talking is like not using body language. Both cussing and body language are deeply evolved and ancient communication mechanisms. Here is an old article from NYT that talks about some of the evolutionary basis of cussing, though there has been more research since then. Cussing operates at a lower neurological level, right at the boundary between voluntary vs. involuntary motor action, which is why people with Tourette’s tend to cuss. Because cussing is so close to involuntary, though, it’s considered to be more “authentic” or “sincere”. You don’t trust people who don’t cuss, or who cuss improperly. That’s a very brief overview; it’s way more fascinating than that.

  4. ^Great article, btw, JSA.

  5. I don’t understand many people’s being offended by profanity. Most people aren’t, so why would anyone *choose* to be? They’re giving the words power that they stopped having decades ago in many contexts. And it’s all about context. If you’re with a group of people who swear regularly, instead of telling them, “please don’t swear around me; it makes me feel uncomfortable,” which makes things awkward for everyone, you should get used to it, and use it yourself. After all, when it comes to language *other* than swearing, you adopt the language and jargon of a group to show that you’re a member.

    As for creativity: this is the biggest problem I have with profanity. It can act as a substitute for wit. On TV, it often does. But there are plenty of contexts where people wouldn’t speak any more intelligently even without profanity. And it is quite possible to swear creatively. Some of the most creative uses are insults, but others are just a good cathartic venting.

  6. I don’t think people “choose” to be offended. I mean, you speak about the words not having power in many contexts…but they certainly do have power in other contexts…and if you are raised in that environment, then you will be more likely to have those kinds of reactions.

    I mean, certainly people can change their actions. So you advise people NOT to tell others, “Please don’t swear around me.” OK, but that alone doesn’t make others swearing around them comfortable. You can’t just choose, “OK, I will be comfortable” or “I will be uncomfortable.” The emotional reaction is habitual, where if you come from an environment where people disapprove of those words, you’re more likely to be uncomfortable when you hear others use them.

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