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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 2)

And yet another argument contends that swearing is "lazy language," just a substitute for a limited vocabulary. Sure, some of it is. But much of language is lazy. Consider the man who says, "I'm like all concerned about, like, you know, like swearing, and stuff." Is he any less annoying than the man who peppers his speech with unnecessary swears?

Mark Twain wrote, "The difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." And a swear is often the right word. For instance, when I wrote "bullshit" in the opening sentence, I meant more than just "nonsense," "piffle," "claptrap," or some other synonym you might find in Roget's Thesaurus. I also meant to convey my disdain for smarmy protests against strong language.

Strong language, indeed. Swears are often the strongest language you can use. People don't always want to be nice. Sometimes, they want to be bitter, uncivil, aggressive.

Sometimes, cuss-lovers just want relief. As Twain also observed, "In certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity furnishes a relief denied even in prayer."

And sometimes -- to paraphrase Cyndi Lauper -- girls and guys just want to have fun. The prudes have to face it: swearing is fun. Moreover, when we swear we please not only ourselves, we spread joy to others. George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock and Lenny Bruce have demonstrated that, as have Shakespeare, Rabelais and Chaucer.

One brisk fall day when I was 5 years old, my father and I stood beneath the red and yellow glory of the maple trees that shaded our front yard. A breeze wafted the smell of burning leaves from somewhere down the street. A regular Norman Rockwell moment. A brief one, however, that concluded when I looked up at my father and, totally out of context, said, "Bastard."

My father swatted at me and I dodged out of harm's way. It was token discipline, but it planted the seed of an idea: words have power.

That night when I introduced my brother to the word bastard, I earned his praise. Same word, different context.

It was a good lesson in boundaries, the edges that in time we all have to recognize. The lesson was amplified a few years later when I asked my mother a simple question: "What's wrong with swear words?"

Sparing the piety to teach the child, she told me that there was nothing wrong with the words themselves, but that they offended some people, herself included. She said she didn't mind if I swore among my friends, but to swear in front of adults might cast discredit on her.

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