I was in high school the first time I heard my father curse, and it unnerved me. He had hit his thumb with a hammer and let forth an "Oh, s****!" Certainly the curse was an understandable reflexive action. But knowing that didn't make it any easier to hear.Now, I cursed once in a while out of earshot of my father; I did not let loose the expletives as frequently as did some of my buddies, but I was no Little Mr. Pure Mouth, either. Surely my father was not unaware of that fact.
And I was smart enough to realize — had I thought about it — that my father was probably no stranger to strong language. He was, after all, a full-grown adult who had mingled with other soldiers during World War II. Besides, he had me for a son — that surely had brought forth at least a couple of heartfelt oaths.
But our house was a no-cursing zone. I couldn't use bad language in front of him, and he couldn't use it in front of me, and of course we both had to protect the delicate sensibilities of my mother, sister and younger brother. It was all a polite fiction — pretending the world wasn't really the way it was, or that we could keep the real world at bay by pretending we were better than we really were.One of the most valuable lessons most of us learned growing up was that there was a time and place for everything. Things you could say in the locker room weren't said in the living room. It's called socialization, letting the upcoming generation know there are different kinds of people in different kinds of settings, and that we have to temper our behavior accordingly. What is appropriate over drinks after work is not necessarily so at the office.
(WARNING: Whiny old man things-sure-have-changed rant ahead.)
Things sure have changed. I don't think "a time and a place for everything" holds true anymore, at least for foul language. Parents cuss in front of their kids, kids cuss in front of their parents, almost everybody cusses at work, the cussing on TV and elsewhere in popular culture is getting coarser and coarser. We're not yet at the point where George Carlin's seven dirty words can be said over the radio, but I hear things that still surprise me. Go to YouTube sometime and check out the parody song "Camel Toe," which is heard frequently on the "Bob & Tom" show.
And the ubiquitousness of profanity is not good for us.
No, not because of the vulgarization of everyday life, or at least not primarily because of that.
Swearing occasionally is good for us in several ways, we are reminded by David Edmonds of the BBC.
Philosopher Rebecca Roache says that as well as the ingredient of offence, swear words tend to have a cluster of other characteristis. We will often use swear words "to vent some emotion", she says. "If you're angry or particularly happy, swearing is a catharsis. Swearing also centres on taboos. Around the world swear words will tend to cluster around certain topics: lavatorial matters, sex, religion."
[. . .]
The emotional release from swearing has been measured in a variety of ways. It turns out that swearing helps mitigate pain. It is easier to keep an arm in ice-cold-water for longer if you are simultaneously effing and blinding. And those who speak more than one language, report that swearing in their first language is more satisfying, carrying, as it does, a bigger emotional punch.
Catharsis aside, swearing can boast other benefits. The claim has been made that swearing is bonding: a few blue words, uttered in a good-natured way, indicates and encourages intimacy. A very recent study suggests that people who swear are perceived as more trustworthy than those who are less potty-mouthed.
But cursing gets its power from the fact that the words and expressions are taboo. We are forbidden to say them. Hearing them is supposed to shock us — that is the whole point. The rule exists so that we may break it.
Certainly over time certain curses lose their power. "Damn" shocked "Gone With the Wind" audience but is an ordinary word these days. In our more secular society, "Jesus.!" isn't quite the epithet is used to be. But it seems to me more and more vulgarities are being used in more and more places more often, so this de-tabooing process is speeding up. What happens when f*** becomes as commonplace as damn? If we make the vulgar commonplace, it will no longer offend us. What happens when nothing is taboo? How do we shock each other then?
I think we cannot do without swear words, so we will just make up new ones as we go along. Will Durant wrote in the first volume of "The Story of Civilization" (before Ariel signed on as co-author) that the taboos may be different but all societies have had them. Some people took away from that that cultural relativism is cool — what's not OK here might be OK there, so who are we to judge? But what he meant was that every society had taboos because they needed them. They helped people bind their behavior to the civilized rules a society needs to stay cohesive. And they sorted people out nicely, to make it easier to see the ones who just need an occasional rebellious outburst and the ones who just were never going to play by the rules.
Same deal with swearing. We need the taboos so we can try, as hard as it is getting, to create and live in a world with boundaries and standards. And we need them so that they can be broken, sparingly by those of us who just need the occasional catharsis or need to bond with somebody, liberally by those we want to identify as the outlaws who will always be outlaws.
If you want to consider contributing to the cause, try some of these, "50 words that sound dirty but really aren't." But please don't overuse them. or we'll be right back where we started.
Oh, and dik-dik, you fanny-blower. Stop being a knobstick kumbag before some slagger puts you in a tease-hole.