Julescosby's Blog

Archive for November, 2009

On Swearing or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the F-bomb

Posted by julescosby on November 16, 2009

Last week a friend and I took advantage of a beautiful fall morning to walk to a local coffee shop for a bit of breakfast.  Whatever I was talking about as we walked in the door has long since been erased from my mind.  But whatever it was, I just happened to swear.  And no sooner did that vile, disgusting word come from my mouth then I looked down to see a child next to his mother looking up at me.   Then she looked at me.  She was not impressed.

I didn’t apologize.  I probably should have.  Instead, I did what many people do in situations like that – I tried to ignore what happened completely.  But that lady’s glare is forever burned into my mind.

Of course, as soon as I sat down, I couldn’t help but notice that the people around me were all swearing.  I felt like I had been pulled over by a cop for doing 20 over the limit, only to see a Corvette zoom past me going 50 over.  Of course they lady and her poor kid had since left, just like the cop always fails to notice the obscene speeder.

Swearing and I have a long history together.  I remember the first time I ever said the word ‘fuck’ in front of my dad.  Bees.  It was the bees’ fault.  I’m terrified of bees.  And some bees showed up.  So I said ‘fuck’ to the bees.  ‘Never say that word again’, he commanded.  He never commanded.

Well to be sure, it wasn’t the first time.  You can say something without actually saying it (‘I’m sorry’ comes to mind pretty quickly).  I don’t remember the context exactly, but I remember there was some space-Lego involved.  I said a word that I shouldn’t have said.  My dad sternly asked ‘what did you say?’ and I said ‘nothing’.   You can say something without actually saying it.

I used to have a lot of parties in high school at my Dad’s house.  He never seemed to mind the underage drinking, the drugs and the sex, but he hated the swearing.

Of course the irony is that whenever I swear in front of him now, he giggles like a schoolgirl.  TV’s Patrick Duffy once summarized growing up as first being told that you can’t swear in front of your dad, then eventually moving to the point where you swear with him.  Right again, TV’s Patrick Duffy!

Once I was suspended from high school for saying ‘fuck’ to a teacher.  Of course she also said ‘fuck’, and wasn’t punished.  Zero tolerance is a funny fucking concept.  As a joke, during that suspension a friend gave me a copy of George Carlin’s ‘Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television’.

Years later, you still can’t say these words on television, and apparently not in a coffee shop either.  But why?

For some, it’s the word itself that is offensive.  This has always perplexed me, because I have never been able to understand how someone could be offended by the word ‘shit’, but not offended by the word ‘poop’.  Obviously they have different euphonic characteristics.  But we can’t reduce swearing to euphonics or level of euphemism.

Similarly, as a child, my best friend’s baby brother would entertain an always increasing number of people by improperly yet hilariously saying “fox”.   He never said ‘fuck’, but it sure sounded like it!

For others, it’s not the word, but the thing that is offensive.  And the thing must be the profane, the taboo.  In European languages, it’s holy or sacred language that represents the taboo.  Over here it is sex and pooping.  With this in mind, it’s easy to see how a French George Carlin might not have been as funny.

Maybe I’ve been in grad school for too long, but I can’t help but put a patriarchal spin on this issue.  When swearing using terms that otherwise refer to genitalia, the woman’s is much more offensive than the man’s is.  Calling someone a ‘dick’ doesn’t really mean anything anymore.  Same goes with ‘asshole’. Although I haven’t seen the show in decades, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve both made it into the regular rotation on Sesame Street.

  • ‘Hey Bob, you’re a dick!’: doesn’t really offend anyone.
  • ‘Hey Bob, you’re a cunt!’: now that’s practically grounds for a jail sentence.

Something tells me though that if we had a different name for women’s rear ends, then there would be a word much more offensive than plain-Jane ‘asshole’.

The thing is, people swear.  And like so many other things, it’s not the practice but the prohibition which constitutes the problem.  Of all of the things we have at our disposal to censor – hate speech quickly comes to mind – swearing ought to be the least of our concerns.  One of the most refreshing things that could have ever happened in my life was to meet relatives outside of the typical family settings – the Christmases, the Easters – and learn that they swear like normal people.

To conclude, I wish I could let the lady at the coffee shop know that I don’t particularly enjoy swearing in front of children.  I certainly do not plan to make a habit of it anytime soon.  But you have to admit, being against swearing is pretty fucking stupid.



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