Monday, October 3, 2011

dropping the f-bomb

I grew up in a conservative Christian environment and swearing was a strict no-no. The usual run-of-the-mill foul-mouthedness was also condemned but more for the reason of being bad manners. Swearing was inappropriate and wrong. We couldn’t say shut-up or call each other names other than our given names. And with siblings representing the Old and New Testament (Matthew, Sarah and Rachel), we were guaranteed to stay in our Christian language parameters.

I managed to successfully navigate high school without swearing. When I sprained my ankle the first time, a teammate said, “I figured it must be serious because she said ‘oh crap’ when she landed.” That was the extent of it.  That was me and my bad self.


In English class my senior year of high school we had a discussion about the use of swear words in a literary piece. Specifically, we had just finished reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, and my English teacher reasoned that “If your leg was blown off in a war, you wouldn’t sit there and say ‘Oh fudge.’ So the author is including swear words to make the scene realistic. It has a place and a purpose in this context." She had a valid point.

And then there was the conversation with my dad about swear words that have “regular” appropriate meanings. Calling a female dog a “bitch” is appropriate; labeling a pile of poo as “shit” is likewise appropriate. That made sense too, but I knew I would stand out a bit if my only exercise of swear-word vocabulary came in a dog park.

Still, I continued in my efforts to avoid swearing. The Christian argument was, and is, compelling for me – I shouldn’t claim one thing and then act another way. I also understood the literary use of swearing as a way of better showing how people live and act in particular situations. And, I still enjoy letting one fly, without it being a bad word, when I see a pile of doo-doo. Actually, I let a few more than that fly, but more on that a bit later.

In my own ponderings of the subject I had added one more argument to the lot, and it is this argument that now most concerns me. Swearing has become so conventional and typical that people are incapable of expressing emotion without including a few salty words – it’s expected, it’s cool. This seems to be a denigration of the English language – apparently there aren’t enough words or phrases to properly make a point without using a “four-letter word.” The greatest offender is the F-bomb.

Ironically, I have since developed a bad habit of swearing. I’m not quite at sailor-level, and my range is intentionally limited, but somewhere between graduate school and my first full-time job, I developed a comfort with these expressions that, five years later, I’m still trying to undo. I stop short at the “F word.” I’ve read it aloud a couple times or when repeating what someone said but even then I feel coarse and cheap using it.

This is my own problem. The greater issue is the prevalence of the word in humor. Apparently, it is near impossible to be funny unless you swear. And to be considered “good” at being funny, you must use the F-word. A lot. Multiple times. Without discrimination. And this makes people laugh hysterically. Not because you’re funny but because you used “F –.” This replays so many times on Comedy Central that I stopped watching. A comedian stands up and starts off with a lame anecdote or a saucy sex story, the audience is tepid at best so he or she just blurts out “F—.” Outrageous laughter follows.

People use it in writing when they want to be funny but don’t have much of substance or originality. Using it a few times in a short amount of space is generally considered effective; many times, writers will play fast and loose with the definition of “short amount of space” and entire essays are decorated with the word.

Clearly I’m in the minority on this one since this is the stuff that people pay for, but it only reinforces in my mind that swearing is a crutch. We can’t take the time to accurately express what we are trying to say or to creatively drive home a point. Instead, we throw in a four-letter word and the minions chortle in prepared response.

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