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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.

 

Comments

tudorlady
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::

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