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In Praise of the Four-Letter Word

It's apparently No Cussing Week. Personally, as soon as I look at that simpering child's coy pose, I want to say several very rude words of a very graphic nature. 

(Cick the link; it hurts.)(also, click this one for the actual site, if you think you can handle the dreadful, dreadful site graphics.)(ugh)

I love language. I love 16-letter multi-syllabic words, and I love single syllable swear words. Life is not always pretty, and I refuse to gloss over that fact by removing the words vital to describe those times from my vocabulary. To pretend that these words don't exist is to deny the emotions that make those words a part of our experience, and I don't think prettifying our language is going to prettify our lives.

There are words I don't like, and words I don't use, but I will not deny them to other people, no matter how much they make me cringe. Sometimes, nothing but the shortest, sharpest Anglo-Saxon epithet will do.

I'm not advocating swearing a blue streak at all times; language is in part valuable because it has the power to shock, and if the worrds that always get bleeped out on TV are used constantly, they lose their power. Like saying or typing a single word over and over and over and overoveroveroverover again, the word ceases to mean anything, and becomes a jumble of letters on the page. Part of their value should be their scarcity; when my mother swears, I know she means it.

I can request that people don't use certain words around me, and it seems eminently reasonable to maintain a certain level of professionalism at work, but asking that someone never use a "bad" word ever? Inconceivable.

And in the end, dishonest. I find that pretty much every anti-"cussing" (talk about your obscene words! What a revolting sound "cussing" makes in the mouth!) advocate pushes the idea of "substitute" words. A true advocate of the removal of obscenity or blasphemy from one's vocabulary should be rejecting the idea of ephemisms as well, because the underlying intent of the word is still there - especially when they're spouting the "bad words make you feel bad" party line.   This is like claiming that when you say the word "murder", it makes you want to kill people.  We swear a blue streak because we're already feeling bad.  If you simply substitute an uncensorable word for the censorable one, you're not avoiding the cursing, you're just a hypocrite (and you sound like an idiot saying "bull poop!").

...Assuming, that is, that you're actually buying into the idea that "cussing" is "bad". If you're simply trying to avoid being unprofessional at work, "drat" is just dandy (even though "nice girls" in the 19th century were not supposed to use such language, which is an excellent illustration of how strong words mute their intensity over time).   There are, indeed, times when swearing profusely is counterproductive, but moderation is apparently something we're not very good at - it always seems to be all or nothing.

(Honestly, "no cussing in school or at work week" would make more sense, but even then, it seems overbearing.  How about "don't swear too much in front of the kids day"?  I think most of us could manage that.)

But the people who think that not swearing is all it takes to be a better person aren't advocating a moderate approach, saying that sometimes, "darn" is all you need; they're trying to remove that form of expression entirely, even in situations where neither children nor your boss are present, situations that might actually benefit from a four-letter interjection.  No, they actually want to deny the very existence of such situations - they prefer to think that "nice" people don't swear.  The fact that they simply substitute one action or word for another escapes them.  I think this is disingenuous to a very high degree, and I find myself despising that kind of double-think far more than the awful, awful words that apparently make grannies and small fluffy bunnies faint.

Look - people get angry.  People get frustrated.  Those words exist because they have a purpose.  No-one is saying that one should teach small children (or one's boss) to use obscene language because it's "cute", but trying to remove them from everyone's vocabulary is fascism.  Sometimes, a good hard consonant-rich swear is completely appropriate.

Patton Oswalt has a great bit about how censors on TV ask him to "clean up" his language when he's talking about sex, and how changing the words actually makes the language far creepier and more disturbing than just saying it straight.  He's right, too - if I heard "I want to fill up your hairy bingle-bangle with my goof juice" come out of Bob's mouth, I'd be grabbing for a frying-pan and screaming.  Sometimes, four letter words are hot.

Mind you, I don't think the 14 year-old child that started the referenced web site is really considering such issues yet - but that's exactly why we should be avoiding "and a little child shall lead us" syndrome.  A young teenager has no real experience of life, and cannot conceive of times when saying the rudest word you can think of is appropriate, useful, or cathartic.  I understand the motivation behind the idea, I really do, and I agree with part of it.  "Bad" language is used too freely.  But I don't want to censor it, nor do I think it should be removed.  In fact, people can't remove it - some other word will simply come to fill its place (such as "frack", from BSG).  To deny the word is to deny the emotion that caused the ejaculation (sorry, couldn't resist) of that word, and that just doesn't work.  Our need for language is just too strong to submit to silly thought-control experiments.

No, the reason I want these words to be used more sparingly is because they are the ultra-burning hot sauce of our vocabulary - too much too often, and we become numb to their power.  I want those words to shock.  If I am going to use language to slap someone silly, then I need some words that will stun by their mere usage.  And the widespread use of the seven words you can't say on television is taking that away from me.  Samuel F. Jackson has made certain words little more than a comma (though I am impressed that he can use them as adjective, verb, adverb, noun, and transitive verb; that's language!), and I want them to mean something hard, indescribable, and angry.

As Lewis Black points out, if you've just been laid off from your job of twenty years and lost your pension, you don't sit on the couch and say "oh, pussyfeathers.  Sassafras, sassafras, sassafras".  It doesn't work.  And all the sanctimonious sniffing about how "that language" is so bad won't change the fact that it works to express our inner thoughts in a succinct way that no other words can match.

Language is never "bad".  It is merely a tool.  And I refuse to say that people who swear like Marines are bad people, since I've known some awesome, awesome Marines.  And their command of the language is epic.

So I will continue to "cuss".  Fuck y'all.



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Mar. 3rd, 2009 01:30 pm (UTC)
I remember well the first time I heard you drop the F-bomb. I thought I'd faint. Dashed unpleasant, what?

Agreed that mere substitution is completely idiotic.

And it's Samuel mutha-fucking-L Jackson, bee-yatch! Shiiiiiiit....

Mar. 3rd, 2009 01:33 pm (UTC)
P.S. If I were YourBob, I'd chase you around murmuring "I want to fill up your hairy bingle-bangle with my goof juice" just to freak you out. I'd wait around corners. I'd put a low-volume speaker in an air-conditioning duct or under the sofa. I'd call you at work and say it in the Krusty the Klown voice.

Gosh, that'd be fun. Of course, you'd go on a killing spree (Fiend With Hatchet Slays Six!), but it'd be fun.
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Mar. 3rd, 2009 01:51 pm (UTC)
I'm a regular commenter on Jez! I missed that post because I was at work on Sunday, more's the pity. Hortense posts great stuff.

My position has always been that I'm an adult and can use whatever words I like, when I see fit. I don't always see fit, but that's my call. People who judge other people as moral or immoral based on curse words strike me as the worst kinds of sanctimonious assholes; that kind of judgmentalism is rarely confined to language issues. My college boyfriend's mother once sent him to have a word with me because she heard me tell him (probably jokingly) to shut up, and she doesn't like "shut up." Man, I hated that woman with the fire of a thousand suns. Good thing the relationship didn't work out.

Moreover, fourteen-year-old boys who wander around telling other people to clean up their language turn into men who pretend to be their mothers and kill women in motel rooms by seldom-traveled California highways. High school is for getting laid and developing a healthy attitude about the reality of life, not trying to turn the world into Mayfield. God.
Mar. 3rd, 2009 03:23 pm (UTC)
Moreover, fourteen-year-old boys who wander around telling other people to clean up their language turn into men who pretend to be their mothers and kill women in motel rooms by seldom-traveled California highways. High school is for getting laid and developing a healthy attitude about the reality of life, not trying to turn the world into Mayfield. God.

I can add nothing. Nothing. ::golf clap::
Mar. 3rd, 2009 02:00 pm (UTC)
Since at work I get cussed out, hear children screaming cuss words and being called 4 letter words on a daily basis, I would love to have a no-cussing day.
But that aint gonna happen.
Mar. 3rd, 2009 02:07 pm (UTC)
Many years ago I knew a most charming Irishman by the name of Phil. He used "fuck" for everything -- including punctuation -- except when he was using "fer fuck's sake". For emphasis he'd say "fuckin' fuck" or "fer fuckin' fuck's sake".

Now I consider that overdoing it, but a well-placed "fuck" (or better still "bugger") is a wonderful linguistic tool.
Mar. 3rd, 2009 03:26 pm (UTC)
I have been known to say, "Fuck fuckity fuck fuckin' fuck" when I'm really worked up about something. It keeps me from committing murder. =)
(no subject) - laurensa - Mar. 3rd, 2009 09:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Mar. 3rd, 2009 02:11 pm (UTC)
I am proud of my mastery of Anglo-Saxon!

I agree with you about language. Language should be respected and used properly. All of it.

Though, the phrase, "I want to fill up your hairy bingle-bangle with my goof juice" would make me fall out of bed in gales of laughter, which would probably ruin the mood. Bwahaha!

That child's expression made me want to raise my eyebrows, look at him over my glasses (I purchased these particular spectacles partially so that I could do that), and say, "Cussing? You ain't heard cussing. Back in my day, we could really cuss. Also, for your information, we called it cursing. And it wasn't 'May you have a really wretched day, dude.'"

Mar. 3rd, 2009 02:22 pm (UTC)
*high five*
Mar. 3rd, 2009 02:34 pm (UTC)
i grew up in the 60's. in the south. with rednecks. when i wasnt at "home", we were shuttling from one naval station post to another, and i had a father who had a tendency to bring home young sailors who needed a realignment with "how to interact with a family again" or the ones who had "forgotten" to call home/mail home in months. (my mama appproved. the more young people to "mother", the happier she was. and still is.)

soooo "bad language" has always assaulted my tender little ears. personally, i have caused one person to go into shock at hearing me use the f-word...it doesnt look like it should come out of my mouth. the innocence curse strikes again. my favorite word? "dragonsnot" just because i LIKE using that word.

and i got my own mother to say shit the other day. i about died of joy. *G* other people? clean up your own language or not. i have the right to politely request that you not spew forth in quantities that prevent me from understanding the point you are trying to make, and you have the right to ignore my request. :)

great post!
Mar. 3rd, 2009 02:52 pm (UTC)
Mar. 3rd, 2009 03:01 pm (UTC)
When my sister was in third grade her school sent home a list of new school policies, one of which was that the students could be suspended for swearing, and asked (demanded was more like it) for the parents to sign it and send it back with their kids. My father, who wouldn't allow us to swear at home, refused. He just could not stand the idea that if his daughter fell, broke her leg and shouted out some expletive she was not going to be disciplined. I think he ranted for a good three days about how unreasonable it was.

As it was, she got in trouble for not bringing back the signed paper.

Mar. 8th, 2009 02:55 pm (UTC)
I don't have a 'no swearing' policy in my classrooms, just a 'save it for when you really need it' policy. The day I had an Erlenmeyer flask crush in my hand, spewing its acid and my bllod everywhere, I yelled 'FUCK' in our all one-big-room-with-dividers High School. Heads popped up like gophers, and the silence was absolute unil one student took in the situation and said "yup, that's definately a time when swearing is called for."

The kid on that book cover looks smug and self-righteous; he doesn't make me want to swear though, just commit violence!
Mar. 3rd, 2009 03:12 pm (UTC)
I recently had a meeting with my boss regarding unpopular actions at my company. As I was delivering my pointed and angry remarks, he was giving me permission to swear.

I think he was disappointed when I refused to do so.
Mar. 3rd, 2009 03:24 pm (UTC)
My knight wants me to clean up my language. It's hard!

He pointed out that he could walk into a chiv meeting and say "Damn it" and the room would hush. (Whereas most other knights could drop F-bombs without ruffling feathers.)

("Oh, I have that f-bomb", he said, "It's in my back pocket. Haven't had a chance to use it yet, but it's there.")

Profanity is verbal short-hand. It stands in for the inexpressible. I'm trying not to be so lazy. Really /express/ how I feel.
Mar. 3rd, 2009 10:07 pm (UTC)
You're obviously not in Calontir.....
Mar. 3rd, 2009 03:25 pm (UTC)
To quote that paragon of 80s teenage-hood, Risky Business:

"Sometimes you gotta say "What the Fuck"."
Mar. 3rd, 2009 03:27 pm (UTC)
I agree.

There are times when cussing like a sailor (or a soldier, in my case) is totally appropriate. Trust me, if the Pope got IED'd, the first thing out of his mouth would be "What the FUCK WAS THAT? FUCK!" (It was the first thing I said.)

However, when I heard our housemate's four year old repeating *verbatim* what I said when I was pissed at the dog for eating my vacuum cleaner part, I decided that hearing a four year old say "The dog ate your fucking vacuum cleaner?" wasn't cute or an appropriate use of language.

So, we use duck, or bork, or dork or soemthing else. I try to say flippin' or freakin', or something other than a word I really don't want to have to deal with her mother over. (Trust me, they both started repeating "boobies" after my husband and the housemate made a crass joke in their presence, not thinking they could hear, but the little bats latched right now.

Mostly, I want Boyo or The Moppet to know when to use expletives, and when not to. There are times when nothing will do but a good resounding "Fuck you, you syphallitic goat-sucking cockwad!" but most of the time, I can get by with a more circuitious phrase.

Edited at 2009-03-03 03:46 pm (UTC)
Mar. 3rd, 2009 04:03 pm (UTC)
"if the Pope got IED'd, the first thing out of his mouth would be "What the FUCK WAS THAT? FUCK!" "

Right before he called down the Wrath of God and smote the enemy with lightning bolts, then declared a Crusade Indulgence and did his level best to wipe the heathen from the face of the Earth. 'Cause The Pope's a fuckin' Nazi, and he don't take that kinda shit from NO one.
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Mar. 3rd, 2009 03:32 pm (UTC)
As someone busy teaching an eight-year-old when some words are appropriate and when they aren't, I agree with this post. Vendor sends me the wrong thing at work, and there are other people in the room? "Popsicles!" Fell down the basement stairs two weeks after giving birth? Well, that "Fuck!" was clearly heard on all three floors of the house.

It did have the unfortunate side effect of having the entire self-mobile population of the party that was going on staring through the basement door and asking if I was okay, but it did get my point across in a highly exact and efficient manner.

On the other hand, it can sometimes be fun to come up with really vibrant alternatives, such as "fatherless son of a spavined she-goat" or "that makes me want to get my titanium spork and get all stabbity".
Mar. 3rd, 2009 03:51 pm (UTC)
Ah yes. We went through that with my son when he was about that age.

His big thing was playing Magic The Gathering with the grownups. So he was allowed to use whatever language we used at the gaming table and nowhere else. However, inappropriate use of obscenity -- calling me a "fucking bastard" for example (I'd have been OK with "proper bastard" cos that's a compliment), got him killed and out of game toute suite.

He learned very quickly what words could be said anywhere, what could be said at the gaming table with impunity, and what was dangerous.

I do like a good exotic curse-phrase though -- fun to come up with and blood-curdling to use.
Mar. 3rd, 2009 03:48 pm (UTC)
politically correct swearing system (Catholic version)
A friend in high school (Catholic, all-boys) worked at the Brother's residence kitchen after school. He and the others working there couldn't swear the way they would normally, so they created a swearing system.

It used the words "flame", "leap", "gape" and "scream" in any order or combination. Any combination of two or more required an "-ing" before all but the last, which got an "-er". So you could say "Flaming leaper" or "Leaping gaper", or "Screaming, gapeing, leaping flamer!".

Worked well; they rarely got detention. Gapeing flamers.

which just sounds wrong, somehow

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