I 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”?