For those of you who are unaware, my uncle is also a writer, and a darn good one at that. Yes, my uncle Geoff has written a wonderful work, Scudder’s Gorge, that speaks poignantly about our potential for both violence and love towards our fellow human beings. In any case, I’m not just trying to sell you on his book, though he has promised me 20% of all profits derived from sales initiated through this marketing technique. Of course I’m joking, he’s not that generous.
Well, the other day, my uncle, also a Colgate grad, emailed me to ask what year I had graduated and to congratulate me on the success of my novel and blog. He said he had been reading most of my columns and enjoyed the content. His only critique? Too much profanity.
Are you f’ing kidding me, I thought to myself, but then I considered the source. My uncle is hardly prudish, and I highly respect his opinion on good writing. Perhaps his criticism deserved a bit more consideration.
After all, I am a firm believer that profanity has its proper use, but overused it loses its impact and efficacy. There are times when an expletive perfectly conveys the emotional impact the author intends. They can be powerful, weighty, dynamic, or humorous. They can add meaning, nuance, or tone. I will argue that point with any language neophyte who may dare to argue otherwise, but they can also be an excuse for lazy diction. They can fill a linguistic space with mere empty banter, a veritable verbal placeholder devoid of creativity or imagination.
I remember driving through Glenwood Canyon years ago with an ex when she rightfully called me out for my indolent, profanity-laced description of the beauty before me. “As an author and a poet, a beautiful shaper of words, you can’t come up with anything better than ‘Wow, that’s f’ing beautiful!’? I’m just disappointed; that’s all.” She was right to be.
Swear words are, after all, just words. Their meaning and impact lie with the audience, and only have the power that the audience bestows upon them. The other day, my kids were sitting in the kitchen eating their breakfast, needling each other a bit about their homework. My seven year old, in her sweet but forceful voice finally chimed back at her brother, “Fuck you, Tobias.” Now, I know some of you may not believe this since I do curse myself in my writing, but I vow she never heard that at my house. In fact, when I asked her, she said she had heard her step-sister say it but had no idea what it meant. Don’t worry, folks, we had a constructive discussion about why we don’t use that word and she hasn’t used it since, but in the end, this is probably much ado about nothing.
Words are inherently nothing more than arbitrary sounds that we ascribe meaning to through the cultural amalgamation of meaning. The same sound that may drive some crazy as they wave their arms frantically to protect the children from the onslaught of depravity means absolutely nothing to someone who speaks a different language. It is thus not the sound that has meaning but our understanding of it. And yet, our understanding is arbitrary and capricious. “Poop” and “shit” mean the same thing, but somehow one is offensive and the other is supposedly cute enough to allow it to be used in the title of a children’s book about potty training. Oh and by the way, your kid is going to know both those words at some point regardless.
Awhile back my son starting asking me about some words he had heard at school. We talked about the proper context for using certain words. I told him that swearing around his friends was one thing, but that doing so in class or while at a friend’s house could lead him to some serious consequences. That said, I told him that the lesson I actually wanted him to walk away from our conversation with was to chose his words wisely and to be thoughtful about the impact they had on others. “Idiot” isn’t a swear word, as defined by the arbitrary standards of our cultural understanding, but it’s effects can be devastating. I told him that if he were to call someone an “f’ing idiot”, I would be more concerned with the “idiot” than the expletive. How did the curse word impact that person’s self esteem? The allowable word, on the other hand, might just have crushed them.
So for those of you out there who feel I might swear too much, I promise you that the point is well-taken and heeded. My uncle’s comment was probably a much needed reminder to use profanity sparingly in order to maximize it’s impact. I accept the aesthetic commentary about not blowing my wad of curse words. But get down off your moral high horse if you were riding one. Swear words are only “immoral” because we deem this so, and somehow you now feel that they offend your sensibilities. Where is your outrage with the words that really offend someone, words like “moron”, “retard”, “ugly”, “wimp”, or “coward”? If we all became as upset about words like this as we do about a bunch of words that really have no meaning other than ones we ascribe to them, the world might just be a better, happier place. Hell yeah!
Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works. Read his blog TRUTH: in 1000 Words or Less every TUESDAY and FRIDAY at www.waitingfortoday.com