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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

S is for Swearing

There's a podcast called Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. She recently talked about Swear Words in Text. It's interesting, as usual. One of the things I learned - or relearned, having heard it years ago, but forgotten - is that the use of a string of characters used to represent cursing - e.g. @#$%&! - is called a grawlix.

I've had long-running debates over the use of curse words, sometimes even with myself. On the one hand is the influence of the late comedian George Carlin, who when describing the NSFW seven words you can't say on television. Why word A but not word B? Word C is bad but only in context. "There are 400,000 words in the English language, and there are 7 you can't say on television. What a ratio that is! 399, 7. They must really be baaaad."

On the other side, I've long been convinced that the indiscriminate use of cursing diminishes its efficacy. A couple personal tales:

About 20 years ago, I was tired and hanging out at my then-girlfriend's house when she came back with some mutual friends. One of them told a joke I thought was offensive; it involved a Jamaican and his organ, and I don't mean musical instrument. I didn't say anything initially, but eventually, it bugged me so much that I said something to the teller of the tale. She immediately apologized. But her friend said, dismissively, "Oh, you don't have a sense of humor." To her, I yelled, "F*** you!"

[An alternative definition of grawlix is to "directly replace some letters in the swear word with asterisks. So instead of just typing random symbols, you replace a swear word with something like f***. That method usually leaves enough information so people can work out what the word is meant to be, but the offensive word isn't actually typed." You DO know what I said, don't you?]

I'm telling this two-decades-old story to one of my work colleagues recently. I deliver the punchline and I thought her teeth would fall out. In the nearly two years she's know me, she had never heard me use that word before. Which, I suppose, is the point: overuse of curse words makes them lose their efficacy.

At left: from Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter - Guilty Pleasures - would this be more effective without the grawlix? Some think so, but I do not.

This is not to say that I never swear. Nine years ago this week, I stepped on a nail that went through my sneaker. I am quite certain that a few expletives were uttered.

There was a period in my twenties where I used words that weren't curses in American English, such as bloody and bollocks, but fortunately, that passed.

I guess I DO rail against the "everyone talks that way" mantra that seemed to be popular in some circles as some sort of justification of what seems to me to be lazy speaking and writing. I was reminded in the current Entertainment Weekly magazine that the rapper Eminen literally cursed out Will Smith for NOT using expletives, which I just thought was wrongheaded.

Oh, and there's a five-year-old in my house who I DON'T curse in front of. I've been told, "She'll hear it eventually anyway"; that is both true and irrelevant. I'm the parent; I'm modeling, dammit, er, darn it.

There's a friend of mine, a good church-going fellow, who used to curse when he played racquetball, usually at himself; he called himself a MFCS. I've noticed since he stopped doing that recently, he plays better. Coincidence? Maybe.

Here's a song Daddy Could Swear by Gladys Knight and the Pips Totally safe for work.

I have this friend I've known for about 50 years who uses on particular curse SO effectively, I have to laugh. The word starts with A and has seven letters. Speaking of which, that's the title of this song by Beck. It is the juxtaposition of the musicality of the tune with the word which makes it oddly fascinating. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers cover this song on the She's the One Soundtrack.

And, as I've noted, sometimes swearing IS appropriate. Go to the Arthur at AmeriNZ blog and click on the NSFW video there about homophobia. Not only might one say the language is justified, again the sweetness of the tune tends to be a fascinating counterpoint to the word.



magiceye said...

loved this post!

Greetings from the ABC Team!

Marie Reed said...

I'm not big on swearing either! I've felt pretty lucky that my 3 sons tend to turn to silly words when fighting.... " You Spinach Souufle"... You're such a Refrigerator Magnet!" They always end up laughing instead of bickering because of it!

spacedlaw said...

Interesting post. Good choice for S.

Sylvia K said...

This is a great post! Fun read!

anthonynorth said...

I don't see a lot of need for it. So many nowadays use swearing as punctuation. Terrible.

Tumblewords: said...

I swear this is a superb post! :) How true that it was used for shock for so long that it's no longer shocking, just shows a lack of vocabulary, to be sure.

Q said...

Very interesting. I never think about swearing...
Grew up in the 60's too! I am sure every now and again a "darn it donut" comes flying out.

Patty said...

My potty mouth emerges when I'm driving...unfortunately! I personally think swearing is crass, so I hate it when I do it! I like Maria's kids' words.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

Swearing is totally cultural, of course, and what's shocking in one place is benign in another. But when I moved to New Zealand I was shocked at the language—to use a phrase from my Illinois youth, they "swear like truckers".

New Zealanders use a lot of the same swear words as Australians, and quite a few from Britain (including all those you used when you were younger). A few years ago, the Broadcast Standards Authority had to rule on whether "bugger", used in an ad, was permissible; they ruled it was, as the word had lost its naughtiness over time.

I swear, so to speak, that New Zealanders' favourite word is what many Americans coyly call "the F word". You hear all sorts of people use it regularly, so much so that, as you suggested, it has no power anymore (except, maybe, when screamed at the top of ones lungs, which is surprisingly easy to do even though the word starts with a fricative).

I admit that in that regard at least, I've totally adapted to New Zealand language use, which makes me totally unremarkable. Bloody oath, mate!

Scott said...

I have worked in too many places where it becomes second nature. Even for the women around. I have really backed off, for many reasons. And this was before we started having children, which is an even bigger reason.

But this post reminds me of a funny story. When in sophomore English in high school, my teacher discussing "Cather in the Rye", which we were reading. He mentioned that the term "f*** you" didn't mean what it literally says, but should be taken more as "don't have a nice day". I still find it funny to this day, especially coming from such a well spoken man like our teacher, Mr. McMahon.

RuneE said...

One might look upon swear words as spices in the language, but then from time to time the food may become over-spiced.

A curious thing about swear-words is that they are often culturally related. English/American words are often sexually related while ours are more often religiously related. Combinations makes for interesting reading and story-telling...

Ps thank you for the comment - most of them will be eaten around Christmas.