S is for Swearing

There’s a podcast called Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. She recently talked about Swear Words in Text. It’s interesting, as usual. One of the things I learned – or relearned, having heard it years ago, but forgotten – is that the use of a string of characters used to represent cursing – e.g. @#$%&! – is called a grawlix.

I’ve had long-running debates over the use of curse words, sometimes even with myself. On the one hand is the influence of the late comedian George Carlin, who when describing the NSFW seven words you can’t say on television. Why word A but not word B? Word C is bad but only in context. “There are 400,000 words in the English language, and there are 7 you can’t say on television. What a ratio that is! 399,993…to 7. They must really be baaaad.”

On the other side, I’ve long been convinced that the indiscriminate use of cursing diminishes its efficacy. A couple personal tales:

About 20 years ago, I was tired and hanging out at my then-girlfriend’s house when she came back with some mutual friends. One of them told a joke I thought was offensive; it involved a Jamaican and his organ, and I don’t mean musical instrument. I didn’t say anything initially, but eventually, it bugged me so much that I said something to the teller of the tale. She immediately apologized. But her friend said, dismissively, “Oh, you don’t have a sense of humor.” To her, I yelled, “F*** you!”

[An alternative definition of grawlix is to “directly replace some letters in the swear word with asterisks. So instead of just typing random symbols, you replace a swear word with something like f***. That method usually leaves enough information so people can work out what the word is meant to be, but the offensive word isn’t actually typed.” You DO know what I said, don’t you?]

I’m telling this two-decades-old story to one of my work colleagues recently. I deliver the punchline and I thought her teeth would fall out. In the nearly two years she’s know me, she had never heard me use that word before. Which, I suppose, is the point: overuse of curse words makes them lose their efficacy.

At left: from Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter – Guilty Pleasures – would this be more effective without the grawlix? Some think so, but I do not.

This is not to say that I never swear. Nine years ago this week, I stepped on a nail that went through my sneaker. I am quite certain that a few expletives were uttered.

There was a period in my twenties where I used words that weren’t curses in American English, such as bloody and bollocks, but fortunately, that passed.

I guess I DO rail against the “everyone talks that way” mantra that seemed to be popular in some circles as some sort of justification of what seems to me to be lazy speaking and writing. I was reminded in the current Entertainment Weekly magazine that the rapper Eminen literally cursed out Will Smith for NOT using expletives, which I just thought was wrongheaded.

Oh, and there’s a five-year-old in my house who I DON’T curse in front of. I’ve been told, “She’ll hear it eventually anyway”; that is both true and irrelevant. I’m the parent; I’m modeling, dammit, er, darn it.

There’s a friend of mine, a good church-going fellow, who used to curse when he played racquetball, usually at himself; he called himself a MFCS. I’ve noticed since he stopped doing that recently, he plays better. Coincidence? Maybe.

Here’s a song Daddy Could Swear by Gladys Knight and the Pips Totally safe for work.

I have this friend I’ve known for about 50 years who uses on particular curse SO effectively, I have to laugh. The word starts with A and has seven letters. Speaking of which, that’s the title of this song by Beck. It is the juxtaposition of the musicality of the tune with the word which makes it oddly fascinating. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers cover this song on the She’s the One Soundtrack.

And, as I’ve noted, sometimes swearing IS appropriate. Go to the Arthur at AmeriNZ blog and click on the NSFW video there about homophobia. Not only might one say the language is justified, again the sweetness of the tune tends to be a fascinating counterpoint to the word.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

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