One of my friends considered not going on a date with a new “guy” because he describes himself as someone who doesn’t swear. She was concerned that he might not be zesty enough for her … as in … too nice, too polite, too banal.
Uh-oh. If we choose not to swear, are we dull? Stuffy? Self-righteous? Repressed?
Is swearing sexy? Hip? In touch? Wordly? Authentic? Real? Daring? Defiant?
Like lots of us, I grew up in a house where cursing was unacceptable. Fortunately or unfortunately, I overcame that early training. I curse. Not lots, but more than some people (though I hope it’s in limited situations) and much less than other people.
Mind you, I have an opinion about this bad habit of mine. (See, I already used the word “bad.”) It’s hard not to sound judgmental of myself, because in general, I think profanity is unnecessary. I have access to an amazing language, and plenty of creative and colorful and insulting ways to express myself without using socially forbidden words.
Yet unsavory words now pepper my vocabulary from time to time. Mostly in private conversation with friends, if I’m very emotional when describing something, or when I’m driving by myself and frustrated over traffic situations, or at home and have a domestic accident (drop or break something or hurt myself).
The problem with swearing, at all, is that it slips out at less desirable moments. In public. In front of the kids. At work. You slip. You swear. Oops.
It happens in places where you’d prefer not to be heard using profanity. For a number of reasons: unprofessional, socially awkward, undesirable role modeling or provocative.
Swearing is a habit, like any other, that can become persistent and sub-conscious. You might not notice how much you do it, unless you start to pay attention (to times when you use it, how often it pops into your conversation, the context in which its more common for you, etc). Even if you think you’re in control of your language, sometimes the wrong words just tumble over your tongue at embarrassing or appropriate times, especially if you’ve gotten into a habit that makes them easier to use than other phrases.
Which of course leads to an argument for the virtue of not swearing at all. And yes, back in the olden days, when my kids were younger, I really cleaned up my vocabulary.
“F*ck!” turned into the exclamation, “Fffffffuuuuhhhhh … Fudge!” or “Frick n’ frack!” (Although some folks prefer the elongated “Fudge-sicles!”) “Sh*t!” became “Sssshhhhhh … shoot!” or “Sssshhhhh … sugar!” I even used crazy ones, like “Tough shnoogies or tough banana peels.” (Eeewww, are you scared yet?)
As a point of reference, feel free to enjoy these creative studies of the many uses of the word f*ck. It’s also available on Youtube. *sigh* Funny and naughty and ticklish.
My family will even argue that “frick” itself is a swear. I don’t think so. I think it’s lifted from something like Looney Tunes, and might be a substitute, but since I’m not using the actual naughty word, it shouldn’t count against me. But since it bothers others, I’ve deleted it (for the most part) from my vocabulary anyway.
Often enough, though, a swear word sneaks into my speech patterns. More often than I’d like to admit. (Usually when I’m very deep into an emotional conversation with close friends. But in other situations, as I admitted earlier.)
It doesn’t surprise me so much when I do it, because I know that I have this bad habit. Yet, I’m still shocked, at times, when I hear it from others. Especially when it seems to be a routine part of vocabulary, and the person who uses the profanity is virtually desensitized to it.
When my child or her friends, for instance, drop the f-bomb, it feels shocking to me. After all, we don’t ever aim swears at or near her. Or her friends. Why would they think it’s okay to use them in our vicinity? Or around each other?
It especially alarms me if profanity is aimed at each other. Curses flung like missiles, lobbed with the intent to hurt, are danger signs (in my opinion).
If another parent swears near or at their child? I’m horrified. Why teach your child that it’s socially acceptable at all. Really, it’s not.
Or worse, why ever model for your child that it’s okay to call him or her names? Should our children ever think that it’s justifiable for us – or anyone else — to call him a “d*ck” or her a “b*tch?” If we heard a boyfriend or girlfriend calling our child such terms, we’d be alarmed, right? If parents use such terms around children, how can our children ever believe that such treatment or expression is off-limits? (Again, such language regularly aimed like a weapon at children or partners can be a red flag … it’s a cautionary sign.)
No, we’re not saints. Yes, we get angry at each other. Friends. Family members. Strangers. Ideally we don’t let rip with profanities. Occasionally we might cross the line.
But weeding out this habit, like any other that embarrasses you, can pay dividends. If you pay attention, take note and try to change your behaviors around its use, it can effective. Over time you can eventually minimize or eliminate it.
Then you’re less likely to slip up. Do it in the wrong place or time.
In addition to other forms of profanity, there’s also the casual misuse of sacred names. The use of “God or “Jesus Christ” as part of a curse is offensive or insulting to many people. This was taboo in my childhood (my dad was a minister, after all, and we were always aware of our public behavior).
In a way, part of my liberation as a young adult was to start using this forbidden language … even if I never thought it was socially “okay.” I remember experimenting with its unfamiliar, but oddly-satisfying use as a form of cursing, once I was out of the house, beyond hearing range of my parents and the disapproving feedback of my immediate childhood church.
It remains a casual, unconscious part of my vocabulary now. I still don’t think it’s okay, but I do it. Sometimes, when I really pay attention, I manage to convert such a curse into something else. I’ll say, “God bless it!” But I mean the opposite, of course (“God dammit!”) Does it count if you say the right words, but mean the wrong thing?
All in all, I realize that I have allowed a distasteful (to me) habit to creep into my life, and I want to weed it out. I’m about to go to graduate school to study sacred subjects, for goodness sake. I want to be sensitive about this habit, and respectful to others and myself, and eliminate it, because I’ll feel like a better participant in a diverse, multi-faith community if I’m not deliberately offending people with this language.
This also makes me wonder about when people suffer from Alzheimers or dementia. Forbidden curses or sexually explicit expressions appear in their conversation, and yet often these words come from people who would never have sworn or spoken inappropriately to others, before their illness progressed. Why does it happen? An educational article from an Alzheimer’s resource explained this process.
This disease damages the formal language centers of the left side of the brain, but doesn’t initially impair the right side of the brain. The right side of the brain stores specialized functions around language and communication:
- One part of the right side of the brain handles singing and music, which is why people can sing familiar hymns or lyrics, but can’t finish a sentence.
- The second specialized function on the right side is “automated” or involuntary retrieval of social skills involving language. Such as, “Hello.” “Bye.” “Please.” “Thank you.” “How are you?” “Fine” “Okay.” “Oh, yes”. This skills are so engrained that they pop out, even appear as appropriate responses to polite questions, but may not indicate that the speaker actually knows what she or he is saying, or that they understood what was said to elicit this response.
- The third specialized function of the right side of the brain involves taboo or socially-forbidden words and phrases. Impulse control areas of the brain have been damaged in many situations, so that this taboo language is suddenly accessible without any barriers or filters. As the person’s brain seeks access to language, and cannot use the left side’s formal language center, it may use alternatives, including this stored body of learned words that were once off-limits. They’re substituted without any attachment to a specific meaning, or appropriateness of use. They just emerge, without any editor, since areas that manage impulse control have also been damaged along with the formal language center of the brain.
For the record, let me also say that just because you use clean, polite language doesn’t make you a saint, martyr or even a “good” or “bad” person. All those qualities are inside you. Words are just an external expression.
And as we know from specific illnesses like those described above, certain physical conditions can trigger the use of such speech. So you cannot always read someone’s character or health based on what comes out of his or her mouth.
So should we never curse? Heck. Gee. Blimey.
I think we’re entitled to let loose sometimes. For instance, I happen to like the image on the left.
I’ve mentioned “Book of Job” moments in my life. When I’d hurl invectives, scream primal screams, curse and swear at the ocean or the night sky, because the hurt or anger wouldn’t stop.
Our emotions are valid. Expressing them is normal and healthy. Occasionally doing it with profanity is part of our human condition.
So please understand, this isn’t about suppressing your feelings. You should express yourself. Openly. Honestly. Deeply. Safely.
I’m not suggesting that profanity doesn’t have a place and a role in our world. Just that it’s use has social and cultural weight; so there’s a time and a place to use it. Or not. (Most of the time, it’s probably not necessary.)
If I keep this commitment to myself, and work on this habit, thereby eliminating curses from my conversation, will the absence of swear words make me less zesty as a person? Less appealing? Less authentic? Less in touch? Less?
I don’t think so.
Will my choice to edit swearing out of my vocabulary affect others? Make them self-conscious? Cause others to watch their language and filter themselves around me? Maybe. Although I don’t want people to clean themselves up, change their personal forms of expression or communication in my presence … or to think they have to change … paying attention to our use of language can’t hurt any of us.
The friend who hesitated to date the new “guy” with the clean language, who won’t swear? She went out with him anyway. Apparently he’s interesting. And a good kisser. He’s got plenty of edginess and opinions … with and without “f*ck” and “sh*t” in his vocabulary. Nice, but not too nice.
I’m tempted to toss out one last swear in this journal. For the road. For old time’s sake.
But I won’t. I’m starting my work on profanity (or its lack) right now.