Abraham, Rachel, Soren and Liam. Our life together in Smalltown, Idaho.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

On Swearing

(With apologies to my mother, who raised me better than this.)

My co-worker Laura often remarks that it doesn't matter if you say "dang" or "damn"-- the intent behind the word, she argues, is the same--so you might as well just use the actual swear.

She's wrong.

And I'm not saying she's wrong because I believe that swear words are somehow intrinsically bad. On the contrary, according to the Gospel of Me, there's nothing wrong with swear words, per se. I don't believe that God plucked a handful of choice words out of each of the living languages, declaring, "These words will I make evil, that the users thereof may be hewn down and cast into the fire." Cuss words are simply words, combinations of phonemes that, by no real fault of their own, have been cast out of the upper-class lexicons; that, through the complex webbing of a language's history, have come to be viewed as a little more crass, sharp, or inappropriate than other sound combinations. Not the sort of words that ought to be brought out at nice dinner parties. Not the sort of words you'd use in a job interview. Not the type of words you'd bring home to your mother.

So while it's unfair, I'm going to go ahead and assert here that there is a real difference between saying "Oh, shooty," and "Aw, shit," even if you mean essentially the same thing.

Why? The answer lies in culture. Language is about communication; communication is dependent on interpretation; interpretation is dependent on culture. So if the culture in which you function dictates that one way of expressing something is more acceptable than another, word choice-- even when expressing the same idea--will affect the people using and hearing it in very different ways. A speaker's "core intent" (the primary purpose of the communication) is only one small component of communication; a more essential consideration is the way this intent is expressed, particularly since "peripheral intent" (other, less essential, motivations for the communication) often emerges in the subtleties of word connotation.

For example, if a lady in Wal-Mart has been standing, for the past twenty minutes, right in front of the hair dyes you want to quickly peruse, your intent in communicating with her would be to get her to step aside for a moment so that you might quickly take a glance, select the "Dark Mahogany Brown," and get the heck out of the hair care aisle. You could communicate this core intent in a couple of different ways, depending on your peripheral intentions. For example, if you wanted to display your irritation, you could tap your foot impatiently and say, "In case you haven't noticed, I'm WAITING!" Or, if you were hoping to shame the woman, you might holler, "Move your big fat ass, lady!" Or perhaps you wanted everyone involved to feel like they'd been bathed in rainbows and butterflies at the end of your interaction. If this were the case, you might politely nudge your way in and say, "Excuse me, could you please schootch over a teensy weensy little bit while I take a quick gander at the Loreal hair dye products? Thanks! Thank you! Thanks so much! Sure do 'preciatecha!" The core intent of the three previous statements was the same, but in the varying expressions of this intent, three very different messages were sent to the oblivious hair-dye row blocker.

Or, say that one of your three roommates has contracted a stomach bug and it's fallen to you to explain to the other two that the bathroom needs to be kept clear in case of emergency. Depending on your peripheral intentions, you might choose one of the following ways of expressing this:

a) "Please know, darlings, that one of our dear companions has found herself with some digestive issues and will therefore need to be given unfettered access to the rest facilities for the next several hours."
b) "Try to be as fast as you can in the bathroom! Jill may need to run in at any moment!"
c) "Jill has the shits! Stay out of the can!"

And so it is with swearing. You might be saying essentially the same thing with a swear word or a swear substitute, but you express different things depending on which one you choose. "Goldarnit," for example, might mean,"I'm in pain, I'm angry, but I choose to remain within accepted cultural conventions in expressing my pain." "Goddammit," on the other hand, could communicate something like, "I'm in pain, I'm angry about it, and I'm willing to forgo social and/or religious norms in order to fully express my outrage."

And what if your intent in communicating is purely to shock and offend all within the range of your voice? You're not going to use a swear substitute: generally the point of using a swear substitute is to keep the offensiveness down to a minimum. If you're with a group of people you don't know well, you're more likely to describe a bad day as being "crappy," rather than "shitty." However, if you are with a group of people whom you think could stand some lightening up on the prudishness, you might intentionally choose to describe your day as "shitty" and then gleefully go on to describe the "stupid bastard" in the supermarket parking lot who took up not only two but three parking spaces with his "big-ass" pickup truck, watching with delight as your audience squirms uncomfortably and flushes a little red.

Another thing to consider is that a speaker's intent in using the same words or phrases will vary, depending on the recipient of the communication. If I were to flip off a stranger who had just cut me off in heavy traffic, he would probably interpret my communicative intent as being something along the lines of, "F--- you, you jerk." And I, knowing that the stranger would probably interpret my gesture in this way, would probably mean it that way. On the other hand, when I flip off my husband, he knows that what I mean is, "I'm annoyed with you right now and know that you will find this gesture to be both slightly offensive and somewhat amusing. So by flipping you off, I am simultaneously expressing frustration and diffusing a potentially tense situation through the use of humor." I know that he knows this, so I use the gesture without the intent of communicating its more...traditional...meaning.

And of course there's the possibility that you're spending time with a group of people to whom swear words--and not substitutes-- are the accepted norm. So if you stub your toe and say, "Oh fiddlesticks!" instead of "Oh damn!" you are using your choice of language to both express discomfort and differentiate yourself from your peers, perhaps sending a message of rebellion or snobbery.

And even on a more subtle level, I would assert that there is a difference between swearing and swear substituting even when you're alone. You're all alone, you drop a glass, it shatters, and you make a linguistic choice: "Son of a gun!" you might shout-- or, if you are more linguistically rebellious, you might holler, "Son of a bitch!" As a speaker trained to recognize the difference between a "swear word" and a "non swear word," your choice of language when alone says something to yourself. It might be an almost microscopic psychological difference, but the difference is there.

So there you have it, bitches. Swearing and swear-substituting are different-- but I wouldn't say that their primary difference is a moral one. What changes the morality of a communication is the emotional/psychological impact the choice of language makes on both the speaker and the listener. But I could go on about that for another ten paragraphs, so we'll leave that discussion for another day.


Anonymous said...

Anyone who disagrees with my clearly genius wife is a fobbing milk-livered dewberry.

Anonymous said...

Did I just read that you think I am "wrong"? Oh no you didn't girlfriend! Hold my earrings Abe cuz you lady is gonna get a whoopin!
The fobbing milk-livered dewberry!:)

Lara said...

Haha! What an enlightening - and entertaining - post. I agree with you, but I can see the other argument. My brother's wife's little sisters were very "prudish" and would never, ever consider swearing in their lives but always used the word "crapping" like people might use the word "f---ing". "This crapping thing is broken. "That's all crapped up." My brother presented the argument your coworker pointed out, that they may as well be saying the other word because their intentions were similar and their offense to the spirit may also be.

I don't know if I go as far to agree with that...but as a lover of the English language and self-expression, I do believe there are much more efficient/artistic/colorful ways to express onself than by the repeated use of any slang word, whether culturally accepted or not. :)

Karen said...

Ha! I think it's hilarious that you give your husband "the bird."

Also I think you've completely nailed this subject. Why do you have to be so damned smart and witty all the time? You're making us all look bad.

I probably use worse cuss words when I'm by myself. Because I sound ridiculous. I'm the type of person that can only successfully pull off "hell" and "damn." But sometimes, only a good solid "full swear" will do.

Holly said...

Holy, holy. You must watch this lecture by Stephen Pinker. What a brilliant and entertaining man. We watched it in my cognition of language course this summer. Perfect. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBpetDxIEMU

It is an hour long. Brace yourself! The swearing part is the middle third I believe. Though I would bet you would enjoy it in its entirety.

Oh, and don't watch it unless you are ready to hear some cursing (aka you may want to shield your children and/or coworkers).

Holly said...

Oh, and I bought hair dye today at Walmart. Two bald men were in my way for.ev.er. I just poked The Three Year Old so she was loud and obnoxious. They moved rather quickly after that.

Marsha Cox said...

Not being the type of person to step lightly around those easily offended, I hate fluffing up verbage. I admit to holding my tongue around children and most family, and while caring for a patient (unless the patient cusses first). When a professor wants a bunch of fluff in a paper, I quietly say "SHIT!" to myself and comply.
Usually, I am straight forward and to-the-point. I find using the right pairing of cusswords at the right moment will bring my point forward without the chance of anyone misunderstanding my sentiment.
Of course, being around my personal military hero adds verbage to my palet that I find quite entertaining :)

Kate said...

I think I'm going to start swearing regularly now. Thank you.

Natalya said...

i think when you wrote this post you were bored and trying to get comments from more than the usuals (me, Nick, Holly).
i never thought much about swearing in its adjectival form, so I haven't formulated a position on that. But for swearing as an announcement of irritation, I do have one.
I decided to avoid even the substitute swears when events like toe-stubbing happen. (I've even stopped saying ANYTHING. like even "Man!" which now that i think about it could be a substitute for taking the lord's name in vain, lol.) And you know what happened? It hurt LESS!!! My ignoring the event altogether made it less of an irritant! Try it! It really works!
(I don't really expect Rachel to try it. She's too entrenched in the real swears. But maybe I can convert someone else.)
My verification word is clogola. That's funny they make them pronouncable words.
p.s. also on retrospect, i guess adjectival swears are also an attempt to express irritation. so i think in the end the thesis of my badly formed comment-essay is the same as yours: that the real issue isn't the word itself, but the communication intent. i wonder if it is necessary in most cases to express irritation. (arguments with husbands excluded.)
p.p.s. on a side note, since i've banned swears from my expression, i i find i express irritation more with raising of voice and occasional sarcasm. both of which doubtless take away from the happy atmosphere in my home.
p.p.p.s. okay, in short--we are human, we get irritated, we express it. whether we need to or how it is done is the issue. which ageless puzzle is not going to be solved in a comment on a blog, so TIME TO STOP! toodles.

Rachel said...

I'm so happy about the response to this post!
Lara-- Thanks for reading and commenting! Hooray! And I certainly agree that excessive use swears/slang can take away from more effective/artistic self-expression. Also, did you know that I work with your brother?
Karen-- I think it would make me giggle to hear you do a hard-core cussing.
Holly-- I will watch it, I will. Soon. Sometime when I have a spare hour. So maybe not soon. But I love you.
Marsha-- You're right. Sometimes no other word will do!
Kate-- I miss your blog!
Nat-- I'm intrigued by your "expletives increase pain" theory. However, I must say that I don't think that expressing irritation is the only reason that anyone ever swears. There are lots and lots and lots of reasons for swearing.

Collette said...

Karen made exactly the same three points I was going to make.

I might add, unnecessarily, that Rachel curses with great aplomb. I, on the other hand, only use swears when I wish to be mocked.

I DO think that hollering: "FOBBING MILK-LIVERED DEWBERRY!" at the top of my feeble lungs would indeed lessen the pain of a stubbed toe.

heidi said...

"Toodles"! I love Nat's comments. This was an exceptionally fine one. I'm particularly fond of the multiple p.s.'s.

So--my honey Paulie (as you may know) NEVER ventures into the blogosphere, with the sole exception of his forays into Karen's. (I think he figures that he wastes enough time online, reading Slate and AV Club and listening to podcasts.) But. The other day he was bored at work and decided to goof around by clicking on blogs--specifically yours! And this post was the one he read!

So I thought I'd pass his comment along. He thought you made your point well--your arguments made a lot of sense to him--and he thinks you are quite a good writer.

Since you've never met him, let me translate: That's Paulie being EFFUSIVE. He thinks you're asymptotically close to SHEER BRILLIANCE as a thinker. And SO talented!

As for swearing--it's motherfucking awesome! I wish I hated more people so that I could say, "son of a goddamned bitch" more often.

Well, I don't ACTUALLY wish I hated more people. But I DO wish there were more swears. I don't want to wear out my fave, the "f."

As a fan of swearing, I have to SWEAR by "Pulp Fiction." I'm not good at tolerating graphic violence, so Paul had to fastforward those scenes, which made for a rather short viewing.

But if that's too much, go for Jackie Brown.

Or, actually--SEE THEM BOTH! I double damn dare you! Only you won't be damned by seeing them.

You'll be blessed, you talented freaking genius, you.

You really are so fucking talented. And loving. That recent Liam post does what so many of your kiddie posts do: made me want you to adopt me.


Rachel said...

Oh, Heidi, I adore you so. Thank you for passing on the Paul praise.
And I will adopt you!
Fill out the papers!


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