Monday, July 13, 2009


Perhaps you saw the article about swearing. (This is CNN's Dr. Gupta's commentary on it.) It's been on the news feeds all day. I only glanced at it. April and I had a discussion about its implications today. As it involves language, I've been considering what to say about it.

Essentially, the article says that pain is diminished if one swears. Dr. Richard Stephens, one of the authors of the study says, “Swearing has gotten very bad publicity– it’s a negatively construed thing. But the positive aspect of it is swearing self-regulates our emotions. It can have a beneficial effect.” The commentary states, "...many people find swearing to be incredibly distasteful, regardless of when or why it happens."

I'm one of those for whom swearing is generally not something I do. You can usually tell if I'm angry by what my word choice is.

This view was formulated in a college English class. Sister Celestine Cypress, a formidable nun with a huge knowledge of language, was discussing a short story written by a classmate. I don't remember if the author was endeavoring to write in the vernacular or was just trying to get a rise out of Celly, but he more than peppered the story with invectives. I remember her handing out copies of the article AFTER she had taken her editing pen to it. 90% of the swearing had been removed. We then had a class discussion on the use of language and when cussing and swearing was appropriate. I remember her saying, "If you have to resort to a swear word, your vocabulary is very poor indeed."

This stuck to me like a velcro suit to a carpet. I read. I love the turn of the phrase. I love a good, or depending upon your point of view, bad, pun. Good authors are the ones who can write well, not the ones who sell the most books. At the time of Sister Celly's comment, I was a 20 year-old know-it-all who peppered her speech with the "f" word. I didn't want to be thought of, particularly for an English major, as having a poor vocabulary. Invectives were banished to the dictionary.

And they have, more or less, stayed there. This is not to say the occasional "oh shit" or the even more salty (for me) "goddamn" doesn't escape my mouth. Keep me up all night and then cause me to do something at which I will fail and you'll hear exactly those words I do know. Plus, I work in an industry which provides support services to the construction, demolition and quarrying industries and they have no clue what "invective" means, but they can certainly add "fuck" to the end, middle or beginning of every sentence.

I don't correct. I just don't choose to use. Over the course of my first 2 years of employment, my lack of swearing, even if I dropped something on my foot, caused those I work with to limit what they say around me or to apologize if, in a fit of pique, they called a co-worker an "ass wiping goddamn piece of shit". Look at me, "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to swear around you."

Remember when "shit" was part of George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words You Can't Say on TV"? Some of those you still can't say. April and I discussed how language has changed, how words once considered verboten don't even register on the ear. She mentioned not being able to read "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck because of the language used. It's integral to the book and you cannot image the characters talking in Queen's English.

But does that make it okay? I'm wrestling with just that question in my WoW guild and this study comes at a particularly prescient time. I have people for whom "shit" and "damn" and "ass" or even "asshole" are as natural a part of their speech as "prescient", "invective" or "construed" are to mine. Does that make me better than them? No. There is a quote and, once again, I can't find it, that says, "I disagree with what you say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." That's sort of how I feel. Yet, I don't wish to be subjected to a string of profanity even if that's your modus operandi. My solution in the guild was to create 18 and over chat rooms where anything goes and, if your normal conversation is peppered with "goddamn" you can still use it, just not in the general chat. It's not a perfect solution by any means, isn't this segregating some people, but it will work for the most part.

As language evolves and what was once offensive becomes less so, I do hope there are still controls on just what constitutes civilized speech in public places. I do not want to walk into the grocery and hear Eunice yell across the produce section, "Howard! Pick up some motherfucking corn, will you?" Some things just shouldn't be said.

Beverage: Dr. Pepper


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