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Insights: Culture

The prudes have to face it: swearing is fun
Sterling Johnson
From the Print Edition:
The Sopranos, Mar/Apr 01

Much has been said and written in opposition to swearing, most of it bullshit.

Fortunately, the soap-in-mouth brigade is fighting a losing battle. Swearing is here to stay because it?s just too much fun to abandon.

Throughout history, people have loved to swear. We know from ancient graffiti -- Greek, Latin, Sanskritic and even hieroglyphic -- that we?ve been cussing as long as we?ve been writing. It's likely that we've been doing it since the first caveman dropped a rock on his foot and bellowed, "Krucka!"

As Americans, our love affair with raunchy language was well established before George Washington decreed his troops should cease the "foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing."

He stated that there would be "little hope of the blessing of heaven on our arms" if the troops kept cussing. Such public piety must have warmed the hearts -- if not the feet -- of the grunts who slogged through the slush at Valley Forge.

General Washington also noted that the "vice heretofore little known in an American army, is growing into fashion." Of course, he knew full well that cussing and soldiering have always gone hand in hand. (Despite that cherry tree business, he was willing to bend truth to defend decency.)

Unfortunately for his legacy, one of his officers blew the whistle on him.

General Charles Scott, when asked if his commander ever swore, described Washington's outburst at the Battle of Monmouth: "Yes," Scott said, "he swore that day until the leaves shook on the trees."

The wicked outburst didn't offend Scott; in fact, he called it "delightful!" He added, "Never have I enjoyed such swearing, before or since. Sir, on that day he swore like an angel from heaven."

Because swearing is so ingrained in us, censors can't dismiss it out of hand. To avoid impropriety, they'll substitute a euphemism for the actual word, or hint at it, creating a sort of guessing game. That's nothing new. Even the great eighteenth-century dictionary writer Samuel Johnson avoided writing "damn," cleverly disguising it as "d---."


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