Monday, February 2, 2009

The Mystery of Words, The Power of Curses

by Julia Buckley

My ten-year-old son has always been stern about maintaining clean language; if his father or I (generally not profane, but both subject to temper) ever let fly with a "damn it" or a "what the hell is that?" he would instruct us to apologize, which we did. We are ever humbled by the vigilence of our children. :)

Lately, though, my son has been sidling up to me and asking for "permission" to say certain words. First it was "hell." He wanted to say it because certain jokes he saw on television used it in punch lines (this includes children's cartoons) and he wanted to be able to repeat them. Later it was the word "damn," and yesterday he asked if it would be okay with me if he sometimes said the word "bastard."

I find all of this very polite and respectful, and it makes sense, because words are about power. Right now my son thinks I have the "power" to restrict his language, which I suppose I do. Later he will seize that power and say whatever he wishes simply to assert his rights. And sometimes, as a child, as a teen, as an adult, he will wield words both to help and to hurt other people.

Swearing is not something that I generally approve of; I don't like stumbling across a tv show or movie with my children that is filled with gratuitous swearing. We turn it off, or I find myself reddening and apologizing to my boys. On the other hand, I know that they'll hear swearing in the world, occasionally from me, so I have to avoid hypocrisy, especially because, whether I like it or not, swearing is a reality that has always been there. According to a 2005 article in the Herald Tribune, swearing has existed since man existed, and when and why we swear is stuff made for scientists.

Ben Jonson and Shakespeare are said, in this article, to be notorious swearers of their age, and their plays are peppered with daring and inappropriate language. "Every language, dialect, or patois ever studied," asserts author Natalie Angier, " . . . turns out to have its share of forbidden speech."

As interesting as why we swear is when we swear. My most likely occasions are true of most of mankind: when I am angry, and when I am under stress. My husband will assure you that I can swear like the most profane sailor when I am arguing heatedly with him, and even if my children are in the car I have been guilty of yelling the occasional "ass-face!" at someone who cuts me off. (Or something similar).

It's ironic to me that the one key swear word I've never said in front of my children (and most likely never will), is the one that our society has given the most power: the dreaded f-word.

I took a linguistics class in college that explored this word in detail (it was a fun class). It suggested that one of the things that gives words like this their primal power is that they sound violent. They are short, assertive, with strong consonant sounds. Therefore, these words are most effective as curses because they sound almost like a violent action--one that we also attribute to a sexual action.

Angier writes that scientists are seeking a link between swearing and the more primal parts of our brains. In an odd way, swearing links humanity throughout history.

But back to my son's questions: when asked if he could say those words, I said I had no problem if he said them at home, in the context of a joke, but that he couldn't say them at school or to his friends. I'm still asserting power over his language, but I'm not fooling myself into thinking that he won't soon seize the power of language for himself.

Well, I've confessed to being a stress-swearer. Do you swear? When and why?

(My photo, which represents the ancient world, was taken by my husband in an Argentinian grape vineyard).


Paul Lamb said...

I have no problem with "swear" words. I think it's ridiculous to condemn a certain collection of sounds or shapes on a page as inherently bad. That said, I try not to use them. It's not that I want to be "proper." It's more that the words have by and large lost their effectiveness. They are so banal that they are really poor choices for expression.

Julia Buckley said...

One article I read did suggest that some people use them with such frequency that they cease to have the "forbidden" quality. They simply blend in with other words.

I don't mind swear words in reading, but I sometimes object to them in speech, simply because of the intensity of the emotion behind them (but that's more on behalf of my little ones than it is for me).

Sheila Connolly said...

Yes, I swear, and I save some choice words for those special occasions. Whatever the word is, it is a signal that I have reached a certain level of emotion--and watch out, anyone who's listening!

Re the f-word, there are movies and cable TV shows that salt it through every sentence of dialogue. The word quickly loses any impact, and I end up feeling sorry for the characters who have no better way of expressing themselves.

Sandra Parshall said...

I agree that overuse of certain words, especially f**k, is tiresome and quickly ceases to have any impact. I don't know anybody who talks that way constantly, and when I encounter characters who do, I automatically classify them as stupid, coarse, and lacking in imagination.

Personally, I'm pretty much limited to damn and hell.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Just some thoughts about the power of words, not meant to start a war of words:

Julia touched on the power of words. Something we all need to be aware of. I caught part of a show the other day on a cable channel (think it was NEWLY WED AND NEARLY DEAD, the title alone got my attention) and it's about newlyweds who are having serious marital problems during their first year. In this particular case whenever they argue and the young wife gets angry, she throws the names of other men she's been with at the hubby. Helloooo? Just how fast DOES she want to be single again?

Isn't it interesting that people never seem to use the Muslim name for God or any other religion's names for Him besides the Catholic/Protestant spoken-only-in-English versions as swear words? At least I've never heard it done. And I suspect if anyone tried it in front of the members of those same religions, they'd better be able to run fast.

Isn't it interesting that people who frequently pepper their language with swear words will clean up their vocabulary when their minister or some other church official enters the conversation?

Susan Evans said...

Swearing is a topic of great interst to me. I wonder how euphemisms work. When we type f**k or the Jon Stewart show only bleeps the vowel sound from an obscenity we all know what the word being referred to is. So why bother? The In the Actor's Studio quiz asks what a perfomer's favortie curse word is and the answer is bleeped but the interviewee always can make it clear which words he loves.
And, are there some words that are so loaded they are always unacceptable? The N word, for example. Thanks for this discussion.

Dana King said...

Sandra hit a key point for a writer. Many people will make the same association she does, so I often tailor characters' language to suit the impression I want the reader to have of that character. This has the added advantage of better conveying the emotion when a character whose language has been relatively sedate cuts loose for some reason.

Julia Buckley said...

All very interesting ideas. Sandra and Sheila, I think you're right in that the f-word is only powerful in the right context. And some people use it in a very funny way, especially writers.

Lonnie, I think you're absolutely right that a word doesn't have to be a "swear" to have power.

Susan, I'm a big Jon Stewart fan, and I too think the notion of half-bleeping something is absurd, although in a way I think they find the words more effective when they use them this way. We are all supposed to feel as though we've gotten away with something together.

Dana, that's an interesting point. I've never thought specifically about swearing in this context, but I do try to gear a character's language to his/her identity. For example, my latest WIP has a lot of teenagers in it, and they swear quite liberally--and the boys swear differently from the girls.

Jen Childers said...

Great blog!

newsweek had an article about raunch culture and I fear we are in the swill.
I lived next door to the profanity goddess. The girl couldn't say good morning without four cuss words thrown in.
Her fave tshirt said F you, you fing, f.
real class, that one.
I cuss but my characters don't. perhaps they have more character than I?
my daddy washed my mouth out with soap on several occasions to no avail. I think i hear it so often I don't hear it when I say it.
When my son was 3 he called someone a bastard. I asked if he could think of a better word as bastard was ugly. he thought a bit and said "son of a bitch!" with such pride I bit my tongue so I wouldn't laugh. (you lose the battle when you give positive reinforcement for negative stuff)
"mommy needs to watch her mouth doesn't she?"
It's my fault, i can blame no one else. (maybe the goddess).
he is 16 now and we understand words have power. we still swear but we try to curb, especially around the elderly and children.
He thinks nothing is funnier than to hear me trip over myself when I am about to let it rip and he says "mom, 3 year old"
It can only be a step up culturally to use more pleasant manners and speech when dealing with people.
This from a charm school dropout!

Julia Buckley said...

Haha--some great points there, Jen! And let's face it, everybody curses in one way or another. One of the other articles I read before writing this one was about a woman who was on an "anti-cursing" campaign and was begging everyone to use clean language all the time. She posted a blog about it, and her blog became immediately filled with curse-laden comments from people who found her hypocritical. And in fact, in her interview with the article's author, she did curse.

We can't avoid it, but we can be honest about it. There are levels of cursing, though, and I think even little children understand this.

I really dislike it when people teach extreme curse words to little children--but go on You Tube and you'll see lots of examples. It makes me kind of sick.