I never found vulgar language to be worth the trouble. Profanity didn’t provide enough payback for me in the currency of the sensations or satisfactions that compel us toward our chosen vices. Though I remember trying out a string of dirty words in junior high, determining how they felt in my mouth and out of it, and deciding to opt for more gratifying improprieties, I’m by far the minority in this category. In recent years, I have observed profanity exploited to the point that it fails to provide the power it promises. And its usage, while superficially considered creative, more often hinders creativity. If people don’t come up with new swear words, we’ll be left with no strong language at all.
By definition, a curse word ought to be an attention-getter. It has been used historically as a show of bravado, or to offend, shock, hurt, or intimidate. We need a select group of words for just that purpose. Convicted felons, gang members, and down-and-outers, to name a few people who live in a hardened state, a state in which regular language will not suffice, deserve to have their own vocabulary to express their harsh existence.
I don’t generally come in contact with such a world, but during a particularly low time in my adult life, swear words occurred to me regularly. That phase passed quickly, but it did make me realize that there are times when profanity suits our condition. However, it shouldn’t be all the time for most people.
Profanity’s power partly derives from its status as a transgression; I don’t pursue that argument here. But the extent that swear words promote ignorance reaches almost a moral degree to any lover of civilized language. People have become so accustomed to hulking up curse words that they use them in lieu of better, truer words for the situation. For instance, a person once described a trip to me by saying, “We had a hell of a damn time.” I wondered, was that fun or miserable?
One symptom of this dumbing-down of vocabulary is the manner in which profanity has been adapted to many positions of sentence structure. Like all languages, English is complex and beautiful, with complicated rules, suffixes, and stress marks (among other indicators) to denote a word’s purpose in speech. And yet people opt for the same trite words to communicate myriad thoughts, actions, and information throughout their day. Take the sentence, “That lousy girl is always lying.” One may insert the word “shit” in four different positions: Continue reading Profanity Doesn’t Mean Crap Anymore