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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

(continued from page 1)

The New York Times takes the guessing game even further. In 1998, Congressman Dan Burton of Indiana called Bill Clinton a "scumbag." The Times wouldn't print the actual term, referring to it as a "vulgarity for a condom." Later, the paper amended that to "a euphemism for a despicable person," sparing the delicate sensibilities of its readers, but leaving more than a few wondering and muttering.

When George W. Bush, not realizing he was next to a live microphone, referred to Times reporter Adam Clymer as an "asshole" last summer, The Times responded with timid references to an "expletive" and an "obscenity." The Times should heed the cry of a national tabloid: enquiring minds want to know -- they don't want to guess.

In 1948, Norman Mailer used the word fug throughout his novel The Naked and the Dead. Readers knew what he meant, although they had to make a mental adjustment at each fug. One such reader, according to legend, was Tallulah Bankhead. She allegedly greeted Mailer at a party with, "You must be the young man who can't spell fuck."

Mailer, of course, wasn't spelling challenged -- between Harvard and the infantry, he'd learned a few things. But in the context of the day, if he had spelled the word correctly, his book wouldn't have been published. Eleven years later, Grove Press sued and won the right to print D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover, which contained the wicked word. By then, it was starting to appear in American dictionaries.

The arguments against swearing don't stand up to scrutiny. Consider the case against blasphemy, a subset of what we now call swearing. In a nutshell, blasphemy angers God (or the gods, if you're a polytheist). If you believe powerful supernatural beings take an interest in your vocabulary, it makes sense to curb your tongue. In fact, it's probably a good idea to suck up to them. The ancient Greeks, for example, referred to the Furies -- three ill-coiffed hags from hell -- as the Eumenides: the Kindly Ones. That makes sense. Why bad-mouth somebody who has poisonous snakes for hair?

Some cultures had taboos about using a deity's name at all -- the ineffable name of…well, you know. Other cultures, such as the Judeo-Christian, allowed you to speak of God, but not to take His name lightly. (That concerned George Washington, but not Green Mountain Boy Ethan Allen, who ordered the British to surrender Fort Ticonderoga "in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!")

I refer to blasphemy in the past tense, for today, among the non-fundamentalists of almost any religion, it's not much of an issue. The main argument now against swearing is that it names shameful things, and thereby harms both the swearer and the listener (or reader).

The shameful words refer to our (and other creatures') excretory and sexual paraphernalia and their functions. The prissy speak of these biological matters in Latin terms or in euphemisms; however, Latin is a dead language and euphemisms cloud rather than clarify communication.

Regardless of what we call them, our body parts are what they are; they do what they do.

Another argument holds that swearing is uncivil or aggressive. Well, some words are, if they're intended that way. But that also applies to innocent words. Say to a longshoreman, "Let me buy you a drink, you old bastard," and he'll likely grin and belly up to the bar. But say, "Let me buy you a drinkie-poo, you big, sweet cupcake," and he'll likely kick your ass. It's a question of context.

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