The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Sunday, November 16, 2008

I Swear!

Growing up, I often heard the adults around me say "someone who swears is someone with a small vocabulary and a smaller mind" (and as we became teenagers, one of my younger sisters would often say this in a snotty tone of voice when someone else swore – but that never stopped her from doing the same). Even as a kid I knew this was a stupid claim. If you swear, then you have demonstrated that you know the swear words appropriate to the situation. In other words, you know words – which is not the sign of a small vocabulary OR a small mind.

Now, if you are incapable of expressing yourself without these words, okay, that may indicate that you could stand to buy a thesaurus. But knowing and using these words does not, in and of itself, indicate a small vocabulary, mind, or any other such thing. In fact, not having these words in your arsenal shrinks your vocabulary by definition.

I have a very large vocabulary – some would even say an abnormally large one. Yet, I swear. I do it when I want to emphasize a point, express a strong reaction, or do some other thing that requires a word that is considered forceful. For example, if I am sick of someone bothering me, I may tell them "go away." If I want to make sure that they understand that I am angry with them and I REALLY want them to go away, I'll tell them to "fuck off!" Both phrases mean the same basic thing – go away, you're bothering me – but the emphasis is different, and as all communication is contextual, that makes all of the difference. There are many people who I can say "go away" to, even yelling it at them, and they will continue pestering me – I have never had anyone continue doing so after I tell them to "fuck off," no matter how mild the tone in which I say it. In other words – the words one chooses to convey a message carry meaning even if the content of the message is the same – and swearing is one of many tools that a person has to convey meaning – just as vulgarity is not always the best way to get a point across, so is eloquence not always the best way.

So, if this is the case, how come so many people feel so strongly about people using these words? Simple – habit.

Words such as "shit," "piss," "fuck," and so on were not always considered to be vulgar. Anyone who has read court documents from Renaissance knows that many of these words were routinely used in the most polite of polite company. Even that word that is considered by many to be the pinnacle of vulgarity – "cunt" – has a long and perfectly respectable heritage. These were considered no more offensive than their clinical counterparts (defecate, urinate, copulate, and vagina - respectively) are today. Actually, even the clinical counterparts still carry some social sting – which comes to the interesting thing about all of these words – they are almost all related to bodily functions, sex, or sexual anatomy. This is not a coincidence – the very social prohibitions and forces that prevent us as a society from actually having an adult conversation about sex (and thus prevent us from realistically addressing issues such as STD's, abortions, birth control, etc.) are the ones that make us go giggly or gasp when we hear someone refer to "shit."

Now, I am no expert on the subject, but if I had to place a bet, I would say that the transformation from perfectly respectable words to "unspeakable vulgarity" is probably an inheritance from those folks who managed to get themselves worked up about everything dealing with the human body – the Victorians. I can think of plenty of times when I saw words that are now considered vulgar in "respectable" contexts that date to before the 19th century – and none that date to after this period. Now, I may be wrong, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Victorians bare the brunt of the blame for this obsession with "bad words."

Regardless, we now consider these words to be "bad" because we have been trained to think of them as "bad" – it is standard operant conditioning, the sort of thing that any first-year psychology student understands full well. And because of this, there is a simple way to deal with the issue – lose our sense of shock when we hear these words. If people weren't shocked when I told them to "fuck off," then it would be no more effective than if I had simply said "go away." If you really feel strongly that vulgarity should be reduced, then you have an obligation to start with yourself and stop reacting to it. Better yet, use it every once in a while – make it boring, rob it of its shock value. These words won't go away, but our reaction can be reasonable and not, well, superstitious, as it is today.

So, to get back to the original point – these words are just that, words. They have no mystical powers, they carry no negative energy, they are simply words. They are only offensive because we as a society decide they are offensive, and we really need to grow up.

Of course, if we do grow up, that will make it harder for me to express my extreme displeasure with coworkers.


Kay said...

Words have power. It might not be mystical power, it might be misguided power of silly… but it is true. Words have power.

If we all started using “bad” words all the time, then yes, they would lose some of (and eventually most of) their power.

But then… wouldn’t we just create new and different words to showcase our angst or whatnot?

Won’t there always be a need for people to have at their disposal an arsenal of “bad” “inflammatory” “naughty” “dirty” EXTREME” words in order to make more powerful points, in order to add emphasis, in order to have the cultural understanding that “fuck off” means a hell of a lot more than “go away”?

I think words are tools.. powerful tools that should be used as tools. Let them have their weight. Overuse will just dilute.

Anthroslug said...

Fair enough - if these are the words to carry the weight of shock value, then that is probably just as well.

And yes, if these words became boring and innoffensive, then more words would no doubt be developed.

My point is that people who want "bad language" (as if there can truly be such a things as bad language) expunged from society are not going to get their way unless that "bad language" becomes just normal, unshocking language - and therefore they have a responsibility to use it and make it such.

Kay said...

True… but I think that people who want to expunge “bad language” from society need to realize that getting rid of it isn’t the answer… because that is not only impractical but also just silly… and instead we should work on reinforcing the idea that the weight of the words is what matters.

… by NOT using them unless it is warranted.

(so instead of making them commonplace, we encourage their use in a general sense and embrace their inherent power.)

If that makes sense,

Evan Davis said...

I agree that the current words we (English Speakers) find objectable are so because of the Victorian age. Taboo phrases in the rest of the world usually involve insults in some manner and not the specific words. "A shoe on your head!" comes to mind.

I have always felt that curse words are more of a subjective thing. They call to mind negative images that people would rather not think. So the violation becomes more of a forcing of another individual to call up negative ideas against their will. Dirty Diaper! Yeah, that's right. I said it.