Warning: Colorful language ahead
I love to swear. Something about the sounds and meanings of certain words resonate so deeply with me I’m just giddy. I love the taboo. I love the language. In fact, I love all language. I’ve found that to love the English language is to embrace all of its facets. There is no such thing as a “bad” word, just words with meanings and sounds that not everyone likes.
Fuck. Ass. Shit. Balls. Bitch.
Why do these letter combinations incite such discomfort? I was told at a young age that words can never hurt me, yet some of these words cause hurt feelings.
Let’s look at how we garner meaning from mere syllables strung together. Generally, word definitions are separated into two categories: denotation and connotation. Denotation is the literal definition. The denotation of “ass” is a donkey. The denotation of “bitch” is a female dog.
Connotation is the feeling or idea that a word invokes that is secondary or additional to the literal definition. The connotation for “ass” might be a jerk. “Bitch” usually connotes an unpleasant or mean woman.
A blend of denotation and connotation makes up the meaning of a word. Sometimes obscenities provide the perfect blend for a given situation. During a terrible bout of a tummy bug, I might shit my brains out. While my brain has literally always seemed to remain intact, this turn of phrase seems the most accurate and appropriate. Simply “pooping” or even “having diarrhea” just doesn’t describe the extreme havoc that exists in my digestive tract or the utter destruction of the toilet bowl. In this case, using a profanity evokes the exact intended meaning while potentially adding a hint of levity.
The idea that profanities might be just right is not new or constrained to pulp writers. Many of the great names in literature have used profanities either to drive home a point, or for simple humor. Voltaire’s work Candide includes a love-interest named Cunégonde. You may recognize the prefix “cun” from the word “cunnilingus,” or to add a blessed bit of additional vulgarity, the word “cunt.” Many scholars actually believe Voltaire intended this heroine’s name to be a recognized pun referring specifically to that area of her anatomy in an obscene manner. Yet the name Voltaire usually elicits ideas of grand writing of old- not a guy who liked to make crude vagina jokes.
Likewise, Shakespeare isn’t just discussing abilities and determinations when speaking of his “will” in Sonnet 135. If so, he likely wouldn’t have referred to “sweet will making.” In fact, he was using the base form of the word, meaning instead dick, or in some cases general sexuality. This, after all, comes from the man who literally coined the phrase: “making the beast with two backs,” (Othello, Act I, Scene I). In modern times, we may see this as a nice euphemism that precludes the necessity for more unsavory speech. But we must place this in the context of an early 17th century audience who would have thought it bawdy as fuck.
In some instances, swearing is just better. How can one adequately portray certain facets of cultural vernaculars without including profanity? John Steinbeck is widely regarded as one of the greats in 20th century American literature. He also taught me the phrase “son of a bitch.” His works have been controversial, but he widely succeeded in his goal of depicting 1930’s Californian migrant workers. Glossing over “bad” words would have been anachronistic and an injustice to the characters.
Speaking of great American authors, Mark Twain had many ideas regarding cussing. He once said: “under certain circumstances, profanity provides a release denied even in prayer.” There is a satisfaction in uttering a word that means precisely what you want it to mean, while also being slightly uncomfortable in its taboo.
I have long been privy to the release provided by profanity. You can imagine my elation marrying a sailor. I was literally marrying into the profession synonymous with cursing. You don’t curse like a teacher, or a doctor, or fireman. You curse like a sailor, and I embraced it whole-heartedly.
Only, I discovered that sailors can swear to their heart’s content, but officer’s wives are expected to be a bit more proper. There’s an assumption of Peggy Sue virtues in some more formal settings that I’ve come across. This is less true at informal gatherings, but more than once I’ve heard “pardon my French” after swearing or alluding to swearing in official forums. As someone with a long career in combining swear words to be as colorful as possible (“ass-genie” is a personal favorite) I find it sometimes difficult to mind my tongue.
I’ve come across many people, both in and out of the military community, who seem legitimately offended by swearing. I almost never want to outright offend anyone, but I also don’t like to actively censor myself. It feels disingenuous to who I am, as though I’m attempting to present a sanitized version of myself. I’m all for putting my best foot forward, but I know my runner’s foot is covered in blisters and occasionally lacks toenails. There’s a delicate balance between trying not to set others against you while staying true to yourself.
For now it seems that I’ll have to restrict my love of profanities at- least in public forums. Once I become comfortable with a new person I can feel out his or her tolerance for the F-bomb and until then, perhaps only actually swear in French. Merde.