The diner was cozy, with brightly colored walls and shelves of knick-knacks between the tables. Behind us, an elderly couple griped about Obamacare over waffles. After placing our order with a waitress who (of course) called each of us “hon”, we turned our conversation to the subject of the last night’s concert.
We were in Eugene. R and I had traveled eight hours from Walla Walla in the middle of July–braving an un-air-conditioned car and hours, plural, of traffic’s glacial crawl–for a concert. This is not the sort of thing I typically do. In college, friends would rocket off on weekend trips to Portland or Seattle just to attend concert, a notion I never quite understood. Barring a Carrie Underwood concert last year (which, really, was R’s idea), the last concert I’d gone to was The Decemberists, back in high school. Before that was Captain Bogg and Salty.
But this concert in Eugene was something special. The headlining act was the Goo Goo Dolls, who had provided musical accompaniment for the teenage years of not only me and not only R, but, I’m fairly certain, at least every suburban American kid born in the ’90s. Not everyone’s a fan, of course, and even I’d backed down from the days of Goo Goo Dolls on endless repeat, but the band nonetheless held enough cultural sway to draw us, a few members of R’s family, and thousands of others to their concert in this Eugene amphitheatre.
We were only a few words into our concert debrief when one of R’s relatives made the quip, “I sure wish he hadn’t said–” here she dropped her voice to a whisper–“fuck so much.” “He,” in this case, was frontman John Rzeznik, who, in true rock star fashion, had liberally peppered his between-song banter and anecdotes with the word.
R’s relative continued, dropping her voice to the point of being inaudible whenever she uttered the swear. “It was ‘fuck this’ and ‘fuck that’ and ‘fucking’… couldn’t he just use some different words? Expand your vocabulary!”
This is not about John Rzeznik, who, I’m sure, gives zero fucks. Nor is it about R’s relative, who’s only one of the many people I’ve witnessed expressing this complaint. This is about the unfairly maligned “fuck”, and the people who can’t fucking stand it.
We Need the Profane
It’s hard to think of a social construction more obvious than that of bad words. You can spend countless fruitless hours trying to explain how gender is a social construct1Which it is, but I won’t get into that here. or talk about the arbitrary social valuation of empirical knowledge2Oh yes. until your throat is dry, but hardly anyone needs to be convinced that the taboo surrounding profanity is entirely artificial. Even the most golden-tongued grade school principal will admit that the distinction between “dang” and “damn”, between “crud”, “crap”, and “shit”, is arbitrary at best. There’s nothing inherent to the word “shit” that makes it more vulgar than “crap”, yet we all have somehow agreed that if you’re referring disparagingly to stuff (whether fecal in nature or not), one of those words is more acceptable to use around Grandma than the other.
True, our profanity has a profoundly Puritanical nature to it. Profanity describes the abhorrent, the profane, and betraying Christianity’s long legacy of influence on our society, our swear words tend to be either scatological, sexual, or sinful. “Shit”, “crap”, “fuck”, “cock”, “ass”, “hell”, “damn”. There are patterns to be found, no doubt about it. Still, these patterns are of our own design, and the difference in vulgarity between scatological synonyms like “crap” and “shit” is nothing more than arbitrary.
We all need profanity. Whether you prefer “gosh darn it” or “goddammit”, you need something to say to express those unmentionable feelings. Profanity is a pressure valve, a method of letting off the steam normally kept confined by our rigid rules of daily order. Hell, Mythbusters even proved–in their admittedly pop-scientific way–that swearing can help alleviate pain.
Profanity is a firecracker, launching conversation up into a flashier, more extreme level of expression. Whinging that you could express the same concept with more family-friendly vocabulary is like suggesting you replace your fireworks with a brightly-colored vase of flowers, or perhaps some glowsticks. The whole point is that it burns.
Word Choice: Needs Improvement
If half of the complaint about pervasive profanity is about the profanity, the other half regards its repetition. “Why do you have to swear so much?” they ask. “It’s so uncreative!”
Were life a series of dialogues penned by an author, I might agree. There’s little quite as aggravating as a repetitive author, who aggravatingly repeats words within the same paragraph (or even sentence), with little apparent awareness. 3Quite. One of the earliest particulars I learned to heed in my writings was word choice; my elementary school teachers encouraged us to refer to thesauruses to prevent words from becoming stale with overuse.
But my schooling also taught me that writing is not speech. Verbal communication, especially informal speech, is hardly held to the same standards of written language. Fragments abound. Contractions are commonplace. And two of the most sacred rules of grammarians–regarding the types of words appropriate for beginning and ending sentences–are all but discarded, their infraction easily put up with. Except perhaps in the most formal of presentations, we don’t speak the way we write.
The people I see decrying others’ pervasive profanity are, invariably, well-educated, literate people. They’re the kind who would immediately pick up on an author’s sloppy writing, and who certainly have the sophisticated vocabulary to suggest alternative phrasing. Editors, teachers, writers–these are people who relish the aesthetic beauty of language and have ample opportunities in their lives to flex their literacy.
And this isn’t a bad thing. The world needs literary aesthetes like that. But their relationship with language–sophisticated, graceful, educated–is hardly the only possible one, a fact which I think escapes the most ardent anti-pervasive-profanity critics.
But most telling to me, most indicative of the uneven scrutiny to which “fuck” and its impolite brethren are subjected, is not what the critics say, but what they don’t say. A sentence like, “It’s way too fucking cold,” or, “I can’t believe how fucking obtuse they’re being,” earns the speaker invitations to improve their vocabulary, but no one says a word against any other habitual modifiers. Routinely amplify your adjectives with “super” or “incredibly” or “ridiculously” or even “very”, and these grammarians, who purport to care so much about creative word choice will hardly utter a sound.
The objection, then, is not rooted in a deep-seated desire to improve the world’s vocabulary. Despite the justifications these anti-swearing grammarians give, I suspect their motivations are far less lofty: the sound of “uneducated” speech ruffles their feathers, and what fits the bill more than saying “fuck” a lot?
There’s more to be said on this subject of grammar policing and classism, but I’ll save it for another time. For now, I’ll say this:
Profanity serves a very real, very important role in communication and expression. Whether your word of choice is “shoot” or “shit”, “gosh darn” or “god damn”, foul language allows you to add spark and fire to your communication. You don’t have to like the words others use, nor do you have to use them yourself, but for fuck’s sake, don’t claim the grammatical high ground. I don’t fucking buy it.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↩||Which it is, but I won’t get into that here.|