Hell With It: “Swearing”, Some Thoughts

I got involved in a brief discussion about the concept of “swearing” recently. The whole thing started with one person’s desire for the popular Facebook page “I F-ing Love Science” to change its name (to remove the “F-ing”). This got me thinking about a lot of things that had been percolating in my brain for a while. Here’s the result.

I put the term “swearing” in quotes because I don’t really believe in the concept as such.

First, there have been a number of psychological studies that indicate significant benefits from “swearing”. Psychology Today lists seven positive effects from pain relief to non-violent retribution, elevated endorphins to humor. Positive Psychology News builds on physical pain reduction.

There are cultural elements too. For instance, traveling in Ireland and England, I noticed a tendency among natives to use “swear” words regularly and naturally. I’ve noted their use occasionally when CSPAN airs sessions of Parliament. No one seems to bat an eye, it’s natural not scandalous, in my experience. In Russia, the Kremlin recently put in place a ban on “obscene language”. These particular words, mat, “helped the country survive the brutalities of Stalin-era slave labour camps, win over Nazi Germany in World War II and ride out the turbulence of the Soviet collapse, supporters say.” They were extremely useful for centuries in expressing views about the government and other issues.

In English, at least, virtually all “swear” words focus on bodily functions and sex. Demonizing the words may reinforce the message preached for centuries by Roman (and later Protestant) Christian hierarchy that the body and sex are dirty and bad.

And some claim that the words are used for “shock” value. Honestly, I think that effect died long ago, though it may move in cycles. Few contemporaries, if any, were shocked when Chaucer used “swyve” (the 14th century equivalent of “fuck”) or when Shakespeare throws out his word play on “ass”. In the 1950s, I suppose some folks would be shocked to hear the words. Personally, by third grade (in a Catholic school) I could out-swear the proverbial sailor. Ironically, proscribing their use actually adds to shock value. Making them non-proscribed, commonly used words, weakens the words and lessens their “shock” value. This is one reason I think the “shock” value is gone today.

But, that leaves the question: why proscribe certain words as “obscene” or “swears” and not others?

For the English speaking world, specifically the U.S., I think the answer lies in a mix of religion and classism. I’ll hit the latter first.

How often have we heard that those who “swear” are demonstrating a small vocabulary (e.g. lack of education)? That’s an inherently classist take, based on the old, pre-1940s days when only the upper class regularly attended post-secondary education and the middle class aspired to live like (their rose-tinted view of) the upper class. Shakespeare knew that “swears” were part of the language of the common people, the groundlings. That’s one reason he used them, to connect with the people who made up the majority of his audience. The same is, arguably, true of Chaucer and others.

Religion, specifically Catholicism and its children (Protestants), has had its effect too. Often the claim for a religious proscription of “swearing” is the third commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” This is a major stretch, I think, unless the Biblical deity is named after bodily functions or sex (which, as noted, make up the vast majority of “swear” words in most languages). What the commandment means is not to trivialize the deity’s name or commit blasphemy, it has nothing to do with alternate (commoner, peasant?) words for urine, sex, or feces.  This proscription is, I think, one of thought control, since words shape how we think and how we interact with the world and people around us.

What’s My Name?: Why Word Choice Matters

I had a conversation earlier in the week that got me thinking again. I’m mostly writing this to get everything out of my head. During the discussion, which focused on editing the phrasing of a statement someone made, a person essentially said that, unless everyone became a lawyer and this was part of a legal contract, the choice of a single word didn’t matter.

As a writer, editor, and educator, I obviously take issue with that assertion. The question is: why?

Obviously words are important, at least I (and presumably most if not all writers and educators) think so. But, why? I think part of it is an understanding that words have various cultural connotations. But, more importantly, they shape how we view the world. I’m kind of channeling a bit of Edward Schiappa and Henri-Jean Martin here. But, even without them, it is obvious that words and word choice are the foundation of propaganda, marketing, and PR spin (really a mix of the first two).

Ancient societies understood that words have the power to shape our views. This is why ancient magic focused on naming and words to change the world (whether to heal, curse, or whatnot). This is also why ancient records talk about “great conquests” that often appear to really mean someone walked into a village and knocked down a barn (clearly not as impressive for a heroic king).

Just to provide some modern examples:

Mushroom – If word choice doesn’t matter, why do pizza places list mushrooms as toppings rather than listing fungus? As a culture, we definitely have negative connotations regarding fungus (and, yes, mushroom is more specific) that we don’t about mushrooms.

“Active Yogurt Cultures” – Nearly every yogurt container says this. Why not say “Contains living bacteria”? The answer should be obvious, given our germ paranoid culture and the plethora of ads we see every day for anti-bacterial everything.

Job Creators – This one should be clear as well. The phrase shapes how people view the world, specifically a given socio-economic class in society. To call them “ultrawealthy” is to make them an easy target, especially when the debate turns to taxes (clearly the ultrawealthy can afford to pay more in taxes, it won’t kill them or cause them to miss meals). Job creators, though, just as clearly shouldn’t be paying more taxes, since that’s money they could invest in creating more jobs, assuming we buy the word choice switch.

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) – A modern classic. This term was used throughout 2001-2002 interchangeably with “nuclear weapons” in the lead up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Eventually, it was used so much that people stopped talking about nuclear weapons and simply said WMD (catchier, easier to say). Why does this matter? Because the people who coined the term knew Iraq had no nuclear weapons, so they changed the terminology while keeping the spectre. They also knew that Iraq had biological and chemical weapons (because the U.S. had sold such things to Hussein 20 years previously). So, when no nuclear weapons were found, they quickly said, “But we found WMD!” by which they suddenly meant bio-chemical weapons, despite their initial associations . . . and technically they weren’t lying, even though they also technically were.