Profanity Doesn’t Mean Crap Anymore

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:

“That shitty girl is always lying.” Or

“That lousy shit is always lying.” Or

“That lousy girl is shitting lying.”  Or finally,

“That lousy girl is always shitting [you].”

Who would have dreamed that “shit” as a verb would earn its own direct object?

The next time someone swears, think about all the creative alternatives the English language offers in place of the overused term.  One woman who didn’t want her sons to use bad language. When she overheard one, she required him to come up with fifty alternate terms for the offensive word. The list was quite innovative (corn-eyed butt snake, though probably not original to the teenager, is hard to forget), and much more expressive than any profane term could be.

Some comedians reveal their lack of imagination by making vulgarity their default language.  Human nature, with relationship woes, personality quirks, and weird family traits, presents adults with abundant opportunities to laugh beyond potty humor.  If the only amusing aspect of a comedian’s act is that he strings together curse words, he’s not really that funny.

Myths and arguments abound about legitimate origins of curse words, most notably “Fornication Under Consent of the King” (and its many variations) and “Ship High In Transit.” As a subset of language, profanity will evolve more readily because of its frequent usage. The introduction of “bitch,” “ass,” and “damn” into mainstream culture through song and show titles detracts from their quality as special words of power. And if the reader argues that “ass” isn’t that vulgar, I’ve proven my point. Younger generation audiences have grown so desensitized through overexposure that they don’t even realize the words are supposed to be taboo.

While today’s normal is hardly a constant, we must develop new words to maintain a specialized vocabulary for when circumstances are at an extreme, out of the ordinary, not a regular day. However language speakers solve this dilemma, it still doesn’t seem either creative or communicative to use the same word both to express how it feels to lose a loved one and to describe a sorry taco. Seriously–I mean no shit.

One thought on “Profanity Doesn’t Mean Crap Anymore

  1. The myth I’m most familiar with is the one that supposedly took place at the battle of Agincourt where the French bowmen gave the English the middle finger to show that they could still pull their longbows to fire arrows (captured French bowmen had their middle fingers cut off to render them less effective combatants). The phrase that the French used was “pluck yew,” yew being a good flexible material for longbows.
    I like the way that Robin McKinley handles cursing on her blog when the need arises. Her words of choice are “frelling” and “doodah” and I find those to be just as versatile as any “real” curse word. And I can think of a lot more creative instances where authors have avoided the mainstream. A lot of books will use any manufactured diety of choice and a suitable body part in order to create a swear. I do love the substitution method though. Sir Terry Pratchett will has used “the midden hits the windmill” instead of the more modern terminology in his Discworld series.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *