Contemplation: Swearing, Another Look

Legislating language rarely works, because language develops to serve human purposes. Some people will always swear in private to show strong feelings — or to sound cool. Given our culture’s inexorable tendency to make the private public, the increasing use of profanity in public — by intention or accident — seems inevitable.

~ Deborah Tannen

The above quote comes at the end of Ms. Tannen’s contribution to the New York Times’ Room for Debate piece titled “Why Do Educated People Use Bad Words?”  This is a wonderful piece that provides some great consideration (as almost all the Room for Debate pieces do).  It is also a topic that interests me, as you can determine from my previous profanity rich contemplation (a piece that I will admit is a bit exaggerated and angry, though I do stand by its basic premise that moral reservations in regards to words is an absurd thing).  I do not intend to use as many expletives in this piece here and I am not feeling quite as defensive and angry on the matter at this point (as I suspect I was during the previous posting).  I have come to a kind of terms with swearing, I think, and that is simply that it provides a glorious catch-22 for anybody who is willing to offer it a bit of thought.

I think my fascination with contemplation of swearing stems from two major facts:

  1. I am interested with language and words and how they are used to establish our understanding of the world.
  2. I am interested in ethics and concepts of morality that drive human interactions.

My previous post exhibits a strong sense of angst at a world that I often perceive as overly uptight and prude.  I do not retract this personal opinion because I do think that often times we use the ideas of “morality” as an excuse to cause guilt and paint ourselves in a brighter light.  What I will admit though is that I now believe that I was mistaking in asserting that it should be easy to dismiss swearing as offensive langauge.  caught up in a reactionary rant I feel now that I overlooked and important consideration in regards to both ethics and language; that is that both of these things are not arbitrary or appearing at random but a long established and constantly evolving.

language, as our primary device for conveying our ideas and understandings of the world has come a long way.  I am not by any means well versed in the theories of how language first emerged from our hominid ancestors but I am quite certain that we (the holistic human “we”) have been talking for a pretty long time.  Obviously over the course of that “pretty long time” language has changed significantly.  The Adamic language, if there truly ever was one, has long been fractured into a myriad of forms and uses.  I doubt that this was due to any Biblical toppling of  Babel but more due to the spread of humanity that created a massive game of telephone over the course of thousands of years.  As time went on and new things were discovered language was forced to further accommodate the world in which humankind inhabited.  This sped up the divergence of language (if a person in one place discovers a Rhino they may give it one name, while a person a thousand miles away discovering a Rhino will more than likely offer a completely different name to describe the same beast).

Likewise ethics have followed a similar path.  We deem actions and ideas as good or bad to accommodate the needs of our society.  Ethics serve as social and cultural regulations.  Would a society that has never witnessed murder need to have an ethical norm that prohibits the action?  Hard to say really because it is probably impossible for us to envision such a society in the first place.  What we can determine however is that ethics and morals exist in a purposeful context.

So what about when language and ethics collide such as in the matter of profanity?  What is interesting is that neither ethics of language can ever really be independent of the other.  On one hand we require language to express our ideas of morality.  On the other hand our ideas expressed through language are subject to the judgment of our ethical norms.  So where does something like swearing come in?

A swear, in and of itself, in not exactly an idea.  Take “fuck” for example.  While the word has a number of attributed meanings, while it stands alone and by itself it really is not serving any specific purpose.  “Fuck” is not really an idea in and of itself.  However when you apply it in a context it takes on a furthering form.  You could say something like “This is a great fucking burger!”  Such a statement seems to suggest that the burger being eaten is so great that it constitutes using a bit of profanity to further emphasize its greatness (alternately you could say something like “This is a damn great burger!”).  In this contextual sense the profanity is really a means of further accentuating the emotional response to the object (here-in represented by the burger).  Likewise a statement of “That guy is a fucking jerk” emphasizes that that guy in not just a “jerk” but is indeed something more (and presumably worse).

“Fuck” can be used in another way though.  One could say something along the lines of “that was a great fuck” in reference to an act of copulation.  The use of the word “fuck” as a replacement for sex or intercourse seems to be intended to add a layer of grittiness to the whole endeavor.  In some ways it creates a detachment from the biological and physical aspect of intercourse and applies the whole matter to a degree of ethical standing.  Sex, in and of itself, has long been something that is strongly regulated by senses of morality and so applying to that an ethically repugnant word like “fuck”  add a furthering layer of complications onto the moral standing of the act.  It creates a sense of cultural defiance.

But anyways, back to the matter at hand (without going into a long expose of all the various potential uses of the word “fuck” and its derivatives), it strikes me that primarily swears are used as contextual intensifiers.  You can even take a word like “zounds,” which is no longer common in regular English speaking, much less considered a swear word, and see how it was logically deployed as an intensifying agent in language.  So if swears words, disregarding their assumed meanings, seem to primarily be used to intensify the emotional value of language, then what about them is so prohibited in society?

I suspect that is has something to do with the public versus the private (which is a matter a number of the contributors in the Room for Debate piece bring up). It seems that our cultural norms which are greatly regulated by our social ethics put some very firm restrictions on how we display emotion in a public way.  Heavy crying or manic laughter in a crowd of people are very likely to catch attention and cause flash judgments of character to fly about.  In general our culture seems to value people who, while not without emotions, can exhibit a confident control over their personal feelings while others present as witness.  As such I surmise that the act of swearing, in a public sense, strongly conflicts with that presumption of emotional control.  The swear works to escalate the emotional emphasis of the language and thus is seen as in conflict with the “social” (aka “public”) norm.  So strong is this moral standard that even when taken into a private setting a swear can still provoke strong reactions merely by forming an association with the reaction that would likely be created in a public setting.

I think that this idea applies well to people who might not swear but choose to use other words instead.  I talked about this briefly in the previous post on swearing pointing out how substituting “fiddlesticks” for “dammit” really does nothing to change the intensified emotion of a statement, it merely distinguishes itself as not being a “bad” word.  However, somebody intensifying their language, regardless of what words they are using to do it, will likely receive the same kind of snap judgements in a public setting regardless of whether a single swear is uttered.  Thus I think that the moral assumption that a swear is a “bad word” is patently false.  Societies reaction is much less about the word and far more about the heightened emotion that the use of a swear signifies.

Even if over time words that we constitute as swears right now become more accepted in the public realm that does not mean that emotional intensifiers and the public reactions to them will diminish.  For these reactions to subside our cultural normatives themselves would require a fundamental change.  Basically we would have to adjust the norms to accepting or appreciating intense displays of emotion in the public setting.  Until such a time that the norms do change there will likely always be “swears” of some sort or another, regardless of what the specific words themselves are.

Really I think it is a wonderful matter to discuss and contemplate.  I’d be fascinated to hear what other people think about the subject.  Please feel free to drop me a comment.

~ by Nathaniel on April 13, 2010.

5 Responses to “Contemplation: Swearing, Another Look”

  1. All right, Lord. I read your In Defense of Swearing post, and I wonder — what do you think about racist/ableist/bigoted words? They’re considered “bad” by society (or rather, by SOME of society). Do you use those on a regular basis? Do you have an opinion on if/when they should be used at all?

    In your other post, you said that we take offense to words because there’s something offensive about the words themselves, and all we have to do is not be offended by certain words. How does that apply with bigoted words? How does that apply when we still live in a racist society? I’m genuinely curious as to what you think, although I’m sure you can guess where I stand on this issue.

    • I believe (without actually going back to read th post) that I have previously written about responsibility with language. While I still stand pretty firmly by the idea that it is silly to take offense from swearing, I hold this because I think swears do little to push a certain belief and more to add an exclamatory factor to language. They are intensifiers but not really an idea set. Racist, bigoted, sexist, homophobic, whatever have you . . . hateful language we can call it . . . is a different matter all together because it promotes ideas that have actual negative consequences. The words are backed with a serious foundation of ideas that promote hating of other people, and in effect allow for inequality and violence to occur.

      Now you can argue swearing can be used in the same way. But I will rebuttal that the swear would really only be used to makes a hateful remark more colorful and intense. I would be against the hateful remark entirely because I stand by my assertion that hateful rhetoric causes sever negative consequences. But what you are really asking about is if the word itself is bad. Is the derogatory term for African Americans, Nigger, a universally evil word? No, it is not. Alone, separated from context, it is just a word. Admittedly it is a word with a very heavy connotation to hate and racism but that does not change that it is just a word. The problem lies in the fact that it is all too often used in the context of hateful rhetoric and promotion of violence and inequality towards a racial group.

      I would suggest that any word can be turned into a piece of hate if used often enough with a specific context, but that does not put the word itself at fault. Yes. swearing has negative connotation in our society, and yes, on occasion it is used in harmful rhetoric. But it is just as likely to be used in a term of surprise or frustration, such as if you stub you toe and say “Ah shit! That really fucking hurt” Or it could be used entirely neutrally with a simple reference “That was a damn good piece of pie.” Neither of these instances are promoting a degree of hateful rhetoric. Sure they may cause a degree of offense to some people, but as Philip Pullman recently put it in an interview “Nobody has the right not to ever be offended.” Swearing may have offensive qualities to it but it is not in and of itself promoting a culture of hateful or harmful ideas. Hateful language is often much more tied into that. However I still caution with hateful language because people often do bolt over it at the wrong times. Many have taken offense to Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” due to the use of nigger throughout. The problem is that when the story was written that word nigger did not carry the same kind context as it does now. It was part of the everyday vernacular, and thus was not necessarily meant to promote hate or violence (now it has been years since I read the book, so I can’t entirely recall, so there may very well be some truly hateful uses within which would constitute a larger and more in detail contemplation).

      Words rely upon a context but in and of themselves cannot be said to be evil or bad or any other qualifier. They are merely devices that are applied, along with a greater number of words, to create a meaning. If that meaning is one with the intend to cause harm, I’d say that it is dangerous and should be avoided. I have written heavily on freedom of speech and how it is important to distinguish the freedom from the potential to cause harm to others. Racism, et al, do just that.

      Interestingly I think I usually avoid the swears bitch and cunt because they have a much more ingrained hateful rhetoric and seem to rarely be used outside of that context. Swearing in itself does not have to promote hate. It might be offensive to some, but it is not necessarily promoting a specifically harmful rhetoric.

    • Oh, and I left out of the previous reply, that it is good to hear from you. How’s life been?

  2. Well! I wish I had more time to read through your archives before I commented today. But I am glad to hear (see?) your point of view. I always, always have a hard time expressing myself about why it’s not okay to use bigoted language and making people understand what I mean. And it’s especially hard working in the food service industry, where the entire conversation is pretty much a stream of hateful language.

    Other than that, life’s been good. I got married, got a puppy, moved to Massachusetts and back to New Hampshire. How’s life with you?

    • Yeah, I understand that. It is one of the things that I like about blogging, in that I can really take some time to form an opinion or an idea. On the other hand, working with people who thoughtlessly spew forth hate and harmful language is certainly a challenge because finding a meaningful rebuttal in the moment is not as easy as it sounds.

      Sounds like life is going pretty well for you. I moved to South Carolina after graduation and have been living here since. I still work for a library, so I guess right now that is my calling. All and all, life is going pretty well.

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