Sunday, September 11, 2011


Current Reading: Grail, by Elizabelth Bear

Inspirational Quote: "Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer." -- Mark Twain

I have a problem with profanity.

I don't believe I'm a very profane man. I try not to swear in public, although I find that when I'm around others who swear, I tend to adjust my language downward. It's an unconscious adaptation, and not one of which I'm proud. Even so, I tend not to get anymore rude than “feces” or “damn” or “Hell,” the latter two of which are perfectly acceptable because they occupy a prominent place in the Bible and therefore cannot (according to the dictionary definition) be considered profane. Of course, one has to let off steam, and there's nothing like a good curse for that. My father was a sailor of Irish descent, and the kind of man who could swear in complete sentences, sentences that were grammatically correct but extremely... busy.

Like anything, however, profanity tends to lose its potency when used so casually. His frequent use of the worst words left him at somewhat of a loss when he experienced moments that were perfect for a curse. I remember him hitting his finger with a hammer once. His exact words were, “Oh, for crying out loud.” Myself, I tend to hold my use of profanity for extreme instances when it's required by anger, or pain, or frustration. The rest of the time, I use things that are less offensive although they're rarely appropriate. My favorite word is “Shostakovich,” the name of an Austrian composer who's been dead long enough that I doubt he'd take offense at my appropriating its use. It's a good word. A nice soft “sh” to start off with, followed by a hard “t” and “k” and a nice bite of “ch” at the end. It's got all the sounds necessary to let off steam, but none of the baggage that goes with all those other words.

There are lots of words (most associated with sex and other body functions) that I honestly believe have no place in civilized dialog. But I'm apparently in the minority. These are words I hear every day. I hear them at work. I read them on the internet and in books. They make their way onto television and into the news and definitely into modern music and movies. As a result, I hear them out of the mouths of my children (my constant refrain is, “just because they go in the ears doesn't mean they should come out of the mouth.”) and I hear them shouted across the school yard and I cringe.

I used to listen to George Carlin. He made profanity funny but I always felt embarrassed laughing at him when my parents were in the room... even though it was their album. I also used to listen to Bill Cosby, who was funny and safe for all ages. I listened a bit to Eddie Murphy when he hit it big in the 80's, but I realized that people were laughing at what he said only about half the time. The other half the time they were laughing because they couldn't believe anyone could get up on stage and talk that way.

Honestly, I know they're just words. They're how people talk these days. Their status as “dirty” words is an archaism, a relic of a time when soap was used to wash out mouths as often as it was used to wash one's face. And perhaps I'm a relic of that time too, because the moment someone resorts to profanity in the course of an ordinary conversation, I automatically revise my estimate of their I.Q. down a few dozen points. Profanity in conversation always tells me that the person is far more interested in how they say something than in what they're saying.

Photo from here.

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