A few weeks ago, my dad asked me why people feel the need to swear on Facebook. Even though Facebook isn’t exactly a public forum, I think the question he was really asking is, “Why do people swear in public?”
The older generations think people who use profanity lack respect, but this is only partially true. If clean language is not the virtue it once was, then dirty language cannot be a lack of it. Ricky and Lucy would have never cursed at each other, but they also portrayed a very unrealistic notion that sharing a bed with your spouse was a concept too filthy to show on the air. Years later, in one of the most wholesome shows of my childhood, Cliff and Claire Huxtible were shown in bed together with no complaints; it was no longer taboo. Times change, and so does our level of what is respectable.
One common assumption is that people who use four-letter-words probably aren’t smart enough to use any others. I find that insulting. I’m an educated and intelligent woman, and my language can be quite creative. Such words supplement my vocabulary, not replace it. I also know when it’s appropriate and when it isn’t, so if you look back through the 200-plus blogs I’ve published here, you won’t find me talking like I do at my house or around my close friends. Usually.
I did write this one article about a certain kind of woman, and I used the B-word in that one quite a bit. Words like rude, mean-spirited, or snooty accurately describe those women, but none of them fully encompass the vision I was trying to create. That particular word, because of the connotation that goes with it, was the only word that would do. Sometimes profane words are simply necessary. Of course this is rarely the case.
Those who don’t usually blush at words that were once taboo are sometimes offended when “God” is added to the oath or damnation. Being cussed TO and cussed AT are different, and being called certain words can be extremely offensive. Sadly and all too often, people resort to swearing at a level that is almost violent, intended to intimidate another. This is not the norm, either.
Some people, particularly men in rugged lines of work, seem to use swear words in place of um, uh, or just breathing. My daughter and I had the displeasure of listening to a conversation recently where literally every other word was the F-word. I understand the (albeit nonsensical) use of the word in its adjective form, but to also use it as an adverb, verb, noun, and interjection was definitely overkill.
Even the most clean-mouthed people swear occasionally, often when angry, and not always to the level of vileness that can’t be used on network television. The British Psychological Society recently concluded that swearing relieves pain. Participants in a physically uncomfortable situation could tolerate it longer if they were allowed to cuss.
Cussing also relieves stress, so it probably made my mother feel better to yell at me to clean up the colorfully described “mess” that was my bedroom when I was in high school. Swearing was a safe form of aggression that dispelled some extra energy and kept her from taking a swing at me. (For the record, my mother is a saint, and regarding my room is just about the only time I’ve ever heard her cuss. Must have been worse than I remember.)
Like most other forms of relief, it becomes less effective when overused. If cursing is part of your standard vocabulary, then that string of four-letter-words you let out at a driver who cuts you off probably doesn’t do you much good. Your sweet grandmother who swore under her breath when she cut her finger on a kitchen knife got more out of it than you do.
For most of us, salty words are exactly that -- spice we add to magnify the flavor of our language. Those expressions punctuate ideas we feel can’t be expressed in mere words, even when we speak with great emotion. Watch your mouth around kids, little old ladies, in family restaurants, and at church, and you probably aren’t going to catch anyone’s wrath.
Even most prolific potty-mouths don’t usually do it at a level that makes your ears bleed, and only a tiny fraction of people never swear at all. So if you’re somewhere between Mother Teresa and George Carlin, you’re pretty normal.