October 21, 2013

In Favor of the Judicious Use of Colorful Language, or, This is Fucking Awesome

I write today about a subject near and dear to my heart, and that subject is...cussing! Whee!

I used to be very uncomfortable and judge-y toward people who used cuss words or swear words, as they are commonly called (I'll be using the terms interchangeably). As a younger, more naive person, I took my reasoning from the Bible verse, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen." - Ephesians 4:29

Obviously, I thought "unwholesome talk" meant cussing, and I would get on my friends' cases about it, and shame otherwise "good people" for using what I considered to be "bad language." But now I see the error of my ways. I repent, and I regret ever making them feel bad or judged when they would use certain words with no ill intent.

The more I thought about how even the most mundane and supposedly "innocent" language can be used to tear someone down, I began to see that it's not the words themselves that are the problem, but the intention behind them. There is a difference between cussing and cursing, and it has very little to do with the actual words you choose. It's all about context and intent.

I don't like the terms "dirty words," or "filthy/obscene language" as that implies certain words are intrinsically bad or wrong to use, and I don't think that's the case. For instance, the following words all literally mean the same thing:

Yet some words are used in an educational setting, some are used on the playground, and some are used in a more Adult Context. I personally prefer using the last two in place of the metaphorical and/or literal usage of the word "stuff." As in "I got to get my shit together if I'm ever going to achieve my goals."

Sure, these words have the potential to be negative and to harm, but that's true of any word. Even a child understands the difference between "A bird pooped on my head," and "Tommy called me a poopy head!"

Swear words are only powerful because as a society we have given them power. They have no power on their own. Shouting "Merde!" repeatedly in a bowling alley in San Dimas, CA will not have the same impact, the same ability to shock an English-speaking audience, as shouting "Shit!" would, because we have not given the particular combination of sounds that form the word merde the same emotional impact in our culture and collective psyche.

Studies have shown that letting slip a few choice swear words when injured can actually alleviate the pain somewhat.

It seems using the words that are expressly "dangerous" or "forbidden" when injured are what does the trick. You can't substitute fudge or fork and expect it to have the same impact, because the emotion tied to the word is what gives it power. If you're using an "everyday" word in place of a "special" word in deference to mixed company, I'm afraid it won't do you much good, other than to alert the more perspicacious listeners to the fact that you really wanted to cuss. And if you're alone and substituting words, it may appease your fastidious and convoluted sense of morality, but it won't alleviate your pain.

Cuss words can be employed for humorous effect. At PAX Prime 2012, Jerry Holkins, the writing half of the popular web comic Penny Arcade, was asked by an older woman what his opinion was on cuss words. She didn't agree with his usage, but her son thought it was necessary to the particular brand of humor that PA is known for. Jerry explained that colorful language is meant to be used as a spice, not the main course. Perhaps this is why it is sometimes referred to as salty language. If used too often, swear words lose their overall impact. A little salt can enhance a dish; too much makes it unfit for consumption. But taste levels vary, too, and again, are context-dependent.

Swear words can also be used to great effect as an intensifier. "This is something awesome," or "this is very awesome" just doesn't have the same powerful ring as Wanz singing "This is fucking awesome," on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' hit Thrift Shop.

Likewise, cuss words can be used to emphasize a point. An otherwise soft-spoken person may use "strong" language on occasion when they are scared/angry/annoyed to alert a listener to their state of mind in no uncertain terms. It makes us pay more attention. A woman being harassed on a bus leaves little room for debate when she coldly states, "Get the fuck away from me," compared to "please leave me alone." Evangelist Tony Campolo would often begin a speech this way: "I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a shit. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night."

Tony brings up an interesting observation; that many people are easily offended about the use of certain words even when those words are used in a context that actually does no harm. Once I understood the difference between intent to harm and intent to alleviate pain, be funny, or emphasize a point, swear words lost their power over me. The realization freed me from the guilt of hearing them or using them.

As with any word, there's a time and place. Not many people will intentionally use swear words around kids (who will surely start using the word themselves unless expressly warned), because they recognize that these words are not to be used without the awareness of the impact they can have. It's called Adult Language for a reason, and that's due to the fact that a fully matured brain is required to use certain words in the proper setting and context. And many people will agree it is not prudent to use cuss words in a professional setting, such as at the office. But again, this can be true of other words and terminology, such as detailed descriptions of bodily functions, no matter how technically correct they may be (unless you're in the professional setting of the doctor's office, describing your symptoms to the medical staff). There are certain words you don't use around people you don't know well, since you won't know how they will be received. I don't use big words like perspicacious if I don't think my intended audience can handle them. I know people who have extreme distaste for any use of the word "moist," no matter how contextually appropriate the term might otherwise be. I don't like it when people point with their middle finger when their first digit is more than capable of doing the job. But none of us are going to get so offended by these otherwise innocuous usages that we're going to stop interacting with the offender, or think less of them for it. We recognize it's our own personal hang up, when the other person meant nothing malicious by it.

"But ladies shouldn't use such language," the people clutching their pearls in the back may protest. I disagree. The argument that somehow a woman lacks grace and refinement due to her word choice in a given situation, rather than based on her behavior and intentions is an attempt to control what women may do by holding over them some patriarchal idea of what constitutes "acceptable feminine behavior." Bullshit. You rarely hear this argument made in terms of "gentlemen shouldn't use such language," because everyone knows any man may do anything he pleases, swing his fist any direction he chooses, and his masculinity and noble intentions will not be called into question so long as he does no harm to others. Even the terms for cussing: strong language, rough language, course language, are equated with a kind of rugged masculinity that makes it acceptable for any man to use when appropriate (even "gentlemen"). When the argument is made that a woman shouldn't use such language, it's not because there is something inherently wrong with the words (as I've already pointed out), but that a woman is overstepping her bounds into Man's Territory, and not staying within the defined boundaries that make her socially acceptable and attractive to men. There are men and women who fancy themselves to be of high breeding and use impeccable language, yet have less than noble intentions and attitudes toward others. If we're going to start judging people by the pedigree of their word choice, we would do just as well to judge them by the pedigree of their family name. Neither are a good indicator of how kind or cruel they may be. And the whole issue of whether people should or shouldn't display certain gendered traits is an entirely separate blog post for another time.

In conclusion, I'm not saying you have to use cuss words. But you don't have to be offended by them either. And you definitely don't have to judge those who do use them as somehow being "less" than you - less educated, less refined, less moral, less whatever. Just because one person chooses to employ the full range of the language available to them while others circumlocute their way around it due to some intrinsic verbal watchdog in their conscience, doesn't make the latter better than the former. It just means they have different taste in word choice. Don't let certain words have power over you just because you may personally disagree with their usage. I don't look good in pastels, but I'm not going to think less of anyone for wearing a baby blue sweater vest or mint green eye shadow (but please don't wear both together--think of the children).

I leave you with one of my favorite jokes on swearing:

Three Southern Belles were sitting on a porch swing, catching up with each other on a sultry summer day. They began inquiring of each other about their respective studies the last few months.

The first Belle said, "My daddy sent me to college, where I studied Music and French and Drama."

"How nice," the third Belle replied.

The second Belle said, "Well MY Daddy sent me to University, where I studied Philosophy and Biology and Calculus."

"How nice," the third Belle said again, waving her paper fan daintily.

The first two Belles looked at her expectantly. "What about you? Where did your Daddy send you?"

The third Belle smoothed her skirt and replied, "My Daddy sent me to Finishing School, where I learned to say 'How nice,' instead of 'Fuck you.'"