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Insights: Culture

The prudes have to face it: swearing is fun
| By Sterling Johnson | From 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---."

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.

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.

"They'll think you taught us to swear?" I said.

"No," she said. "They'll think I didn't teach you to respect others."

It sounded reasonable then and still does. Context is all. You don't say "bastard" in front of your father when you're 5 years old. You don't say "asshole" in front of a live microphone when you're running for political office.

But in a newspaper, magazine, book or movie, why hedge? Why not use the right word? Put it on the table and let the reader decide if it's appropriate.

There's enough bullshit in the world -- why shovel more?


Sterling Johnson wrote English as a Second F*cking Language (St. Martin's Press). He swears by the First Amendment.