What annoys me most about soap operas is when a character says: “I just can’t freakin’ stand this anymore!” or, “I flipping hate you, I really do!” or, “What do you mean I’m not the chuffin’ father?”
Like all other words, “bad” language has its purpose. If the most fitting word for a situation is a swear word, then it certainly does not behoove the author to use a twee alternative. I am forced to forgive daytime television and its imposed restrictions, but unfortunately this only reminds me that the same deliberate avoidance of expletives exists in literature.
As Coleridge said, poetry is “the best words in their best order,” and so it goes without saying that swapping words for their weaker, rosy-cheeked siblings will not the best poetry make. In fact, one poorly chosen almost-swear word can swiftly turn an otherwise fine story into a poor reflection of the author’s weak sensibilities.
The debate about the need for swear words is a surprisingly common one among writing students and general writers alike. In my experience, discussions usually go one of two ways. The first is from the NOT ON YOUR NELLY camp, who often cite religion as their reason for cringing when anything more than a “bloody hell” is uttered. Or they may just be uptight.
The second is courtesy of the LESS IS MORE AND FOR GOD’S SAKE BE CAREFUL camp, who say you should probably set up your laptop so that five-hundred volts passes through you each time you type a bad word, just to make sure you don’t go over the quota.
Personally, I don’t think either of these are very healthy ways to address the issue. I find myself, then, in camp three, where we treat swear words the same as we treat any other word.
Words have no special meaning by themselves. They are just sounds that our ancestors figured should be associated with the feeling or object they wanted to address. Without the help of a surrounding sentence or intention, they are no more than these sounds. It is context that gives these grunts meaning, and if you worry that swear words seeming more jarring and powerful than the words before or after them, then I daresay you are underestimating the effect your words can have. Words, after all, are no better than one another unless deliberately made to be so.
Although there is obviously no sense in the NOT ON YOUR NELLY camp, I can at least see the logic in the LESS IS MORE mind. I can be convinced by the argument that cursing does not use the same part of the brain as everyday language, but stems from the limbic system where emotions are dealt with.
This means that rather than being practical language per se, swear words are emotional outbursts and therefore, like any strong emotion, they need a strong motive. People constantly say that if you use too many, you risk losing their effect.
While I trust the business about the limbic system to be perfectly correct, I don’t accept that just because they come from somewhere else they should be treated differently. Just because a word is “emotional,” doesn’t mean it is more at risk of saturation than another. After all, using “and” too much would make a sentence sound like a pre-schooler’s homework, but we do not need to know which area of the brain it comes from to realize that.
The rather entertaining and blindingly obvious thing about this way of treating curse words is that by using their tepid surrogates, the real word only becomes ruder. Calling someone a mother-fudger does not make them any less insulted. It offends them all the same by way of intent, and also makes the speaker look ridiculous as an added extra.
Seeing F**k on the front page of the newspaper does not leave anyone wondering what the word is, it only draws attention to it, and therefore makes it seem offensive without letting the reader decide whether they are offended by themselves. The headline may as well contain that word alone for all the promotion it’s getting. Treating a swear word with more caution, wrapping it up in its straitjacket, is rather like hanging a BEWARE OF THE GOLDFISH sign on your front gate. No one is going to come with the preconceived notion to be afraid of your goldfish, but once they see the sign, they’ll wrongly wonder if they should start to take a little care when they sprinkle their own fish flakes.
With this thinking comes the slow tendency to judge words generally appropriate or inappropriate, which increases the frequency with which people weigh in to the argument and say that because something offends their delicate eyes there should be rules in place to protect everyone. It was only two years ago, after all, that Putin said he would package all books that contained swear words differently and make sure they were covered with warning stickers. Is this the world we want to live in? I daresay even those who do treat swear words differently don’t want this to happen, but any doubts about censorship are inevitably bringing this extreme a little bit closer.
Just because it comes from the emotional chunk of your grey matter and some people might recoil with their hands over their ears does not mean that you should start fighting your artistic impulses and taking the Puritan’s eraser to your work. With words, there are no rules or quotas or hierarchies. Nothing says that a fuck should not be followed by yet another fuck in a sentence just because it is a fuck. Nothing should say that one word is any more meaningful or effective than another when stripped of intention and context. So go free and do not give a shit.
As George Carlin said, “There are no bad words. There are bad thoughts, bad intentions… and words.”