19 November 2005

Profanity

I'm recovering from this dread disease, but it's not going as quickly as I'd like. I've had to get a second round of antibiotics. I knew this would happen. It came about the other day when it felt as though someone were stabbing me in the ear with a knitting needle every time I blew my nose. I'm beginning to more and more slowly improve, tho. But I'm still spending a lot of time on my computer.

I've discovered that there are a LOT of bloggers out there. "No, DUH!" you say. I know. Or I should have known. I did know in the back of my mind. But I've been finding them. There are lots and lots and lots of blogrrs. Some of them are really, really good. Most of them are not. But here is a nearly universal discovery I've made. Through blogging we (the collective "we") have come to a place where we can now curse in print and "get away with it." It can be printed in decent society and no one will bat an eyelash. Here's how it's done. People write it like this: WTF, or wtf. I've seen it done in some very respectible places now. I've even seen this: WTFWJD (think WWJD and you'll get it). And of course, that left me howling with laughter.

I'm not sure what to think about this. Print media seemed to be the last bastion where profanity was only used in "certain" appropriate conversations in novels. And you knew when you were going to come across them. Now I think it's going to surprise us everywhere. Not, as most of you know, that I have a particularly clean mouth. But I just wonder how this will change us. Where will this take us? I'm not sure it's a good thing.

17 Comments:

Blogger Lone Ranger said...

I like to think my vocabulary is sufficient to handle any situation I encounter. Profanity is ignorance made audible.

11/19/2005 07:28:00 AM  
Blogger Shushan said...

Nope, its not a good thing. I'm a little more used to profanity again after all the surgery my husband has had this last year. He's recovering now, and watching his mouth again..mostly. People have gotten where the curse easily at many sorts of jobs. AS he has been a truck driver, sailor, mechanic, and more..you cna just imagine how much of it he heard on the job.

Being in this world but not of it can take a lot of work sometimes!

Susan

11/19/2005 09:36:00 PM  
Blogger Mike Croghan said...

Hmm. Personally, I don't understand the point or value of declaring certain words "profane" or "vulgar". It's totally, utterly arbitrary. They're just strings uf letters/sounds. Why, as a culture, do we need to say that a certain string of letters is vulgar, while another string of sounds that symbolize precisely the same thing is "polite"? It's just silly. I can think of a whole bunch of different words for "feces", some of them considered profane ("s--t"), others just vulgar("c--p"), others slightly less vulgar in print (for some reason) if you replace the vowel "i" with an "!" instead ("s-!t"), others ("poop") considered OK for kids to hear and say. They all signify the exact same real-world object. Why do we go through the cultural exercise of deciding that some of those are more acceptable than others in various contexts? It just seems like a frivolous waste of time to me, especially if anyone bothers to get upset about it.

My thinking is that we should use whatever word conveys our meaning most clearly--assuming we don't have a good reason to think that our word choice will make our readers/hearers (or--this is key--their parents) pointlessly unhappy. If we're in a setting that we have reason to believe is adult and not particularly tender-eared, and we want to be extra-emphatic and perhaps wake people up a little, then a curse word is often the right choice. I recognize that these words would lose much (if not all) of their extra-emphatic and slightly shocking property if it weren't for the pointless, arbitrary cultural exercise of randomly declaring them taboo--thus removing the only real value that this process, as far as I can discern, has for society (i.e., providing the language with a set of words that can be used for extra emphasis). It's an odd bit of cultural ideosyncrasy.

So I can see the value for those of us who use "those words": some extra-spicy items in our lexical toolbox for when they're needed. But I'm at a loss to understand what the value of declaring those words taboo is to the folks who actually consider them taboo. I think it's an area where it's worth stepping back, taking a good, critical look at the culture and saying...WTF? ;-)

11/20/2005 12:43:00 AM  
Blogger Ross said...

Wow Mike.. I agree with you, but it's easier to agree on paper than in practice, especially with a couple of juvenile word sponges living in the house with us. :) Your post led me to do a little early morning research at http://www.etymonline.com

Fascinating! "Turd" dates from the 12th century, and Sh*t, etc., have equally rich histories.

11/20/2005 07:11:00 AM  
Blogger Schuyler said...

What's intersting to note about many of our modern "curse" words is that they are one of two words that were used in Britain after the battle of Hastings. There were the Brythonic words and their latin root equivalents. It played out that the Germanic versions are our swear words and their latin equivalents are the ones that are acceptable. So, by swearing, we're actually fighting against the oppression of foreign conquerors! Right TF On!

11/20/2005 01:14:00 PM  
Blogger kate said...

Sorry, Mike, whoever you are, but I hate cursing (I mean, the 'offensive' stuff). Yeah, yeah, everything's offensive to someone... But I hate it. Despise it. It's a real lack of respect for those around you, and a real sign of ignorance and laziness, as the Lone Ranger (whoever you are) said. I am sick of people mocking the, uh, group that monitors what's on tv (it's slipping my mind right now) because they don't just say, "oh hell, let it fly!" We already are treated to bitch and all sorts of lovely things. Must we add worse ones to our daily dose of viewing?
There are so few social niceties left. And, I'm right there at the forefront of resistance to wearing nice clothes to church, etc. Yeah, table manners are annoying and inefficient, and I'd rather do many things before writing thank-you cards. But, can we just keep being civil for awhile longer? Please? Say, the rest of my lifetime? I don't want to see those words going in my daughter's ears, and I REALLY don't want to see them coming out of her mouth. There are nice ways to say things. You know the power behind those "bad" words. Yeah, yeah, their derivations are arbitrary. Yeah, "zounds" stems from a really strong one (by his wounds), and "bloody" and "bollocks" are strong in the U.K. but not here. It's arbitrary. I get it. But, please, society in general, can you please please think of it as one of the last mannerly acts of politeness? Please?
/end rant/

11/21/2005 12:06:00 PM  
Blogger Mike Croghan said...

Kate, I hear you, and I'm not out to argue or trying to tell you you're wrong, just trying to understand: what is it about placing certain words off-limits that adds value to life--yours or anyone else's? I'm tempted to think that it's just this: some folks have been strongly conditioned by parents/church/society to feel bad when they hear/read certain words, and (quite understandably) not wanting to feel bad, folks want to not hear/read those words. I can understand that--I don't want people to feel bad--but does the conditioning in and of itself add anything to the quality of our lives?

Somehow or other I seem to have escaped that conditioning, but if I hadn't escaped it, and I thought about it in those terms, I'd probably be mad as heck and want to rebel against it and train myself to lose that Pavlovian response that doesn't help me or anyone else in any way I can detect. Then, I'd still have the freedom to choose to respect folks who do feel bad when they hear/read those words, and refrain from cursing in inappropriate contexts. I'm specifically thinking of Romans 14 when I say this.

On the other hand, when thinking about appropriate and inappropriate contexts: if one's calling is to minister to folks (maybe younger adults, maybe post-Christian) for whom profanity is a frequent feature of speech and correspondence, then I do feel that it's appropriate to use words like that when they're contextually called for. (Now I'm thinking 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.)

Profanity is an artifact of culture and has nothing to do with the Gospel one way or the other, and I don't think it's appropriate to give folks the impression that cleaning up one's mouth--or learning to dress a certain way, etc.--is a prerequisite to following Jesus. (Although learning increased respect in appropriate contexts might flow *out* of a walk with Jesus. 1 Cor 6:12 is another good thing to think about in this regard.)

Anyway, I really never expected to get all philosophical and exegetical on the topic of profanity. Perhaps I'd better shut up before Sonja's blog comments overflow with my--er--male cow poop. :-)

11/21/2005 01:41:00 PM  
Blogger kate said...

So your question is: Why is it helpful?
I come at it this way: It's not so much helpful as it is inevitable. People want to rebel. They want to be able to shock. As you say, it's often teens who are trying these things on for size and attempting to be different (by conforming to someone else's standard of rebellion -- ahh, I love it) that brings these things about. You're saying, why have swear words? So am I. We are asking the exact same question. Of course, what you're saying (I think) is, why give them that power? Why give things that aren't intrinsically harmful -- words -- the ability to do so?
Interesting point. So, how, practically, do you suppose we all do this? Do people like me just decide all at once to do what we now hate?
Are you familiar with the Vagina Monologues? I'm gonna guess not, though feel free to surprise me. In it, they have a little section where they "take back" a certain word. So we (the audience) are all supposed to chant it, more and more loudly. I just didn't buy that. It doesn't make it good if I start using the "c-word." And I sure don't expect those who haven't had this epiphany along with me to understand.
I think there are things that you can't "undo." I think these things exist for a reason -- people want, and seem to need, ways to be jackasses -- and we can't very well all close our eyes very, very tightly and wish it away.
It is wearying, I will agree, to attempt to keep up with what is considered shocking, where and to whom. I feel this when confronted with certain ethnic groups' supposed preferences. Especially when they use the supposed worst word(s) to describe each other, often affectionately. It does make one shake one's head and want to give up.
I'm at work, so I'm not going to look up those verses -- not sure if you've included the one(s) about not using course, profane language. Also, I don't think Jesus was about offending people, unless it advanced the Gospel. He did, however, talk to them on their terms. I'm certainly not saying 'don't swear around people for whom that language has different currency.' But I'm surely against it becoming commonly acceptable everywhere in society. (which, whoops, it sure seems to be.)
Am I giving a carefully reasoned, rational argument? No. For that, I apologize. But basically, these words are often not used "accidentally", as in, "I just accidentally learned to use the F word for noun, verb and adjective at least three times in a sentence. Sorry. I can't help it," though I have run into those people. These words are used to wound. To shock. To make a statement. It's interesting to ponder what might happen if, I guess, we were to all start using them, what, casually? I mean, do we all hold hands and jump together, and tomorrow these words are useable in polite contexts? It is the way it is. If I could snap my fingers and make it not so, I'd love to. But they're still going to be ugly noises in my ears. They're not "nice" words, no matter what their meaning. It's interesting to me is that the words that stick as the strongest cuss words have that nice, hard, satisfying CRUNCH to them as they leave your mouth. They are hard, harsh sounds. Intentionally, I believe. Which is why it's so funny to me to hear English people swear in those lovely, proper, well-rounded accents. It just never sounds "right," and is therefore delightful despite their best efforts to be crude.
Sorry about the scattershot responses. I guess the bottom line is, I don't have a great argument for you. I just have the very fiber of my being that is opposed to certain things being mainstream. And I can't think of a better example -- that isn't blatantly immoral -- then cussing. So maybe I'm unintentionally proving your point.

11/21/2005 03:54:00 PM  
Blogger Mike Croghan said...

There is something specifically about coarse language in one of the epistles somewhere, isn't there? I didn't reference it and can't for the life of me think of where to start looking. Anybody know?

11/21/2005 05:08:00 PM  
Blogger Ross said...

Here you go....

Ephesians 4:29 (The Message)

Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift.

11/21/2005 09:57:00 PM  
Blogger Mike Croghan said...

Hmm, thanks, Ross. There's also Ephesians 5:4 and Colossians 3:8. But depending on the translation, it seems like some translators feel that those are referring to "abusive language" or "evil talk", which may or may not mean profanity.

I do feel that these, like some of Paul's seemingly restrictive statements on gender roles, need to be read in light of 1 Cor 9:19-23. That is, for the sake of the Gospel, behave as the culture you're a part of would have you behave, as long as you're not going against the Gospel itself. Become all things to all people, that you might by all means save some. Don't behave in a manner that pushes people away! In some cultural contexts, profanity would push people away. In others, disapproving of profanity--or even being conspicuously squeaky clean yourself--might push people away.

That said, I recognize my need to be corrected and chastened by Brother Paul, so even though I suspect that these statements are culturally specific like the ones about women covering their heads, etc., my earlier claims that this issue had nothing to do with the gospel were ill-informed. But I still think that cultures inventing dirty words in the first place is a silly thing to do.

This has certainly been the most interesting conversation about cuss words I've ever participated in. Thanks, folks!

11/21/2005 11:47:00 PM  
Blogger Liz said...

Mike,

I agree with your point that we give curse words their power. But all words have power. To deny that is to deny language and the human expierence of language. Think about how powerful it is the first time a lover actully says, "I love you." What is the emotional response when a mentor or other really valued authority figure says, "You really disapointed me." Words do have power and ture communication would be so much more difficult if we tried to take away that power.

I'm not anti-curse words. I think they have their place. Frankly, I think societies current over use of the words is bad because it does take away the power of the words. When I say the "f" word, I want it to have impact. But if people walk around saying, "This "f"ing pudding is "f"ing great." then it really loses something.

The other problem I have with the current dumbing down of commuincations is that people are judged based on their communication skills. I'm a hiring manager. I want well spoken, educated people to represent my department. If people can't make their point without trash language, they're never going to get a job from me... and lots of other people I know.

11/21/2005 11:56:00 PM  
Blogger aBhantiarna Solas said...

This discussion is really great. I've really been enjoying it. I'm loving all the different view points and the passion too. I'm going to post another comment below this. It's actually from my mother, but she doesn't want to get a blogger identity in order to post. So the next comment is from my mom.

11/22/2005 06:39:00 AM  
Blogger aBhantiarna Solas said...

From Sonja's Mother:

My father reported that as a teenager at Mt. Herman circa 1920 he was punished for saying “Gee”, which was considered the first initial of God, and therefore profanity. That did not change what has become ‘profanity creep’. You see as a youngster I was his go-fer for all sorts of family and household chores. And when things broke or did not fit right, guess what? I was treated to what would today be considered rather bland cuss words or maybe not profanity at all - such as ‘jackass’. I first realized my mother was not ignorant about profanity when I was about 16 and heard her utter ‘shit’ on the other side of a closed door. I will not claim to have never uttered profanity – even in front of my children – although never within earshot of said parents.
I consider profanity to be like cigarette smoke, loud, shouting ‘modern’ music, rude drivers, litterbugs etc. I have no way to control any of it so I pretty much
tune it out as best I can. But it seems to me profanity more often occurs in entirely impersonal situations – media, electronic communications etc., and almost never face-to-face. Communication was almost entirely personal 90 years ago; now it is more and more impersonal and electronic, so people seem to feel comfortable taking
liberties. When our son, the youngest of three, was about 9 years old he began rather frequent use of the ‘F’ word. When ignoring the situation did not work, I explained why I and others might find that distasteful and he
was expected to cease and desist using it around me and any other elders. His reply? “Okay, Mom, but I’ll never never use the “N’ word.” Since he had sworn
never to use it, it took me some time to get him to reveal what that was. “Nigger”, he whispered in my
ear. Since we had never specifically told him not to use that term I realized he had come to that
conclusion from family conversations. And I also realized that while some people are careful not to use profanity, they are wholly unaware of the damage done by many words/phrases (i.e. ‘retard’, ‘jew him down’ ) that they use. Words like ‘nigger’ and ‘retard’ are what drive knives into my spine, and I do not tune those out.
LightLady's Mom

11/22/2005 06:53:00 AM  
Blogger aBhantiarna Solas said...

I can testify to this ... when I was little, we could get away saying "curse" words that my friends could not. But if we said words that belittled others or were demeaning to others, words like "nigger" or "retard" ... then we got punished. But never for ordinary curse words, that was just plain kid stuff in my mom's eyes.

11/22/2005 06:56:00 AM  
Blogger Mike Croghan said...

Wow, Sonja's mom, I thought this discussion was cool already, but you've injected some real, honest-to-God wisdom into it. Liz, you too--words do have power, and we would do well to reflect on their effects (something I do far too little of). We'd like to live in a world where, as Humpty Dumpty says in Through the Looking Glass, our words mean exactly what we intend them to mean, no more, no less, but the fact is that our words mean what our hearers/readers take them to mean. I'm reading Jesus' brother James' letter right now, and he has a lot to say on the subject. I guess growing up in the same house as Jesus would teach you a thing or two about powerful words.

Anyway, let me never be heard to say that blog comments are no place for a good conversation. :-)

11/22/2005 09:08:00 AM  
Blogger kate said...

A couple more things:
First and foremost, to those who know me and are reading this, please don't feel now that you must curb your language around me. I really don't want to put a chilling effect on anyone. It's probably the height of hypocrisy, and I have no explanation, but I get an inordinate amount of pleasure from sitting around, drinking margaritas or eating Chipotle or e-mailing and hearing (or seeing) the occasional swear word or three fly. There's something about that freedom thing -- even though I don't do much of it, I love that my lovely, Christian friends feel free enough to do it. I guess limiting it gives it the impact, much like Liz said. Y'all don't use it left, right and center, and for that, I am grateful.
When I was younger, I wished it would all go away. (I was a rather sensitive child...) But now, I do see the time and place for it. Really, I think Liz and Sonja's mom said it best -- there's a place for it, but let's keep it there, thus keeping it powerful and relevant. And I love the bit from Sonja's mom about the impersonal(ness?) of mass communications. Also leading to a host of other interesting social phenomena, but I'll save that for another time.
And -- I think Sonja wins for most comments on a blog post that I've ever seen!

11/22/2005 10:19:00 AM  

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