Sunday, January 18, 2009

I swear!

Please note: this post contains a discussion of foul language. Blasphemous, vulgar and hateful terms are used in this discussion.

As I have said before, I'm not against coarse language. I find the entire culture of censorship to be absurd and silly. Harsh words only have meaning when they are restricted or taboo - those who seek to protect the children from the horrors of hearing the occasional 'fuck,' 'shit,' or 'god dammit' on TV are only ensuring that the word will bear the same weight when their children have children of their own. Censorship - even if it is self-censorship - is a form of dishonesty that serves no particular purpose. It does nothing to solve the supposed problem.

But what has been bothering me about swearing is that it falls into one of three general categories: it is either blasphemous, scatological or hateful.

I do not recognize any gods at all. Therefore, invoking their names or mocking their powers or achievements is meaningless to me on virtually every level. In fact, the only function that the so-called profanity serves is to offend those around me, which is never my intention. 'Oh my god' is fairly ubiquitous in our daily language and, although I was prevented from saying it as a child, I know plenty of Christian children and parents who use the term regularly and without a blush. The term has little power to offend any more and primarily just expresses surprise. The silly, blunted and child-friendly terms are also worthless to me, despite their power to amuse: 'gee whiz,' 'jeepers,' 'gosh,' 'drat,' 'darn,' 'hell's bells' (my favorite!) and 'heck.' The big guns are similarly impotent: the power of a 'Jesus fucking Christ' has been greatly diminished for me. It only works because of the weight that the memory of this collection of words carries. I know that it used to shock me when I heard it, so it is still within easy reach when I am frustrated.

Scatological words are the infantile way to vent frustration. Excrement is gross to everyone and shameful to the religious, so why not fling our shame like so much feces around during a conversation? Words like 'shit,' 'crap,' 'shoot' and even 'sugar' are - to me - a reflection of our desire to distance ourselves from our animalistic past. I have noticed that while my dogs appear to consider feces dirty, they do no suffer from any kind of shame. Humans are animals, and excrement is dirty but not shameful. Or perhaps I am reading far too much into this. Perhaps shit really is what it means - worthless and messy. In either case, these words are the least offensive of the foul language lexicon and generally reflect poorly on the speaker.

The final category is far more pervasive, with darker roots than the other two, although it is often the go-to category for many otherwise progressive people. The hate is generally misogynistic and rooted in shame. These vast majority of these words are insults rather than exclamations. Some are simply ugly and easy to dismiss; 'nigger,' 'spic,' 'faggot' and so on. But many are less obvious. Words like 'bitch,' 'cunt,' 'pussy' or 'twat' are often some of the worst that can be levied. It is tempting to compare them to the male counterparts such as 'dick,' 'prick' or 'tool,' but it is clear that the female-specific terms are far more venomous, at least in America. Then there are the sexual terms - 'cocksucker,' for example, is a completely bizarre insult. If the described activity is so degrading, then no one who uses it as an insult should expect to receive the benefits. 'Bastard' is another term that has subtle misogynistic undertones, as it is an implied insult to one's mother.

This exploration can go on for hours. I have been completely unable to uncover an expletive word - either child friendly or not - that does not have ties to one of these three categories. Since I am not religious, I am not hateful nor do I wish to appear uneducated, I have been trying to find expressions of frustration that I can use. The Disney show Recess created a word that carried no baggage: 'womps,' as in, 'I hate all this rain. It womps.' Liz Lemon on 30 Rock uses 'blerg' as an expression of frustration. Battlestar Galactica replaced 'fuck' with 'frack,' although this is simply an extremely clever way around the censors.

So my question to the world is, are our expressions of anger and frustration necessarily mired in our darkest fears? I am on a mission now, a quest to find, appropriate or make up words to fill my vocabulary. Of course, I'd prefer to simply be serene and happy for the rest of my life and have no use for such powerful language. I welcome suggestions and will keep you up-to-date on my project. In the interim, those who know me should not expect much of a change. I'll still blaspheme the name of Jesus, I'll still call things shit and I'll still use the term 'bitch' to describe a complainer, no matter the gender.

A quick side note: Dan Dennett has written a very powerful essay about his experience in the hospital. In it he explains that, to him, 'thank goodness' is not a replacement for 'thank god,' but a genuine and sincere gratitude for the hard work and care of humanity. I will mangle the thought if I attempt to describe it further; you should go read it for yourself.

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