Monday, March 6, 2017
The Usefulness of Swearing
When something really exasperating and infuriating happens, you can either laugh or swear. And, as a writer, I believe that both work well, as long as they are not overdone.
It really annoys me when I hear people -- too often young people -- using the F word repetitively and casually, making the word absolutely meaningless. What do they say when a crisis demands a really emphatic response? So, while some writers have made brilliant use of repetitive swearing, to demonstrate the mindlessness of their characters or a society (think Clockwork Orange), it is pretty silly of most authors to overuse oaths in dialogue. As in real life, save the really big words for really demanding occasions. That way, the F word has maximum impact.
But, believe it or not, people have written books about swearing, and other people have published them. As reviewer Joan Acocella remarks in The New York Review of Books, as long as there is no cure for cancer, it is going to be awfully hard to get a grant for studying swearing, but there are folks who seem to have managed it. And they have found that there is a market for profanity.
Obscene language presents problems, the linguist Michael Adams writes in his new book, In Praise of Profanity, “but no one seems to spend much time thinking about the good it does.” Actually, a lot of people in the last few decades have been considering its benefits, together with its history, its neuroanatomy, and above all its fantastically large and colorful word list. Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word, an OED-style treatment of fuck that was first published in 1995, has gone into its third edition, ringing ever more changes—artfuck, bearfuck, fuck the deck, fuckbag, fuckwad, horsefuck, sportfuck, Dutch fuck, unfuck—on that venerable theme.
Meanwhile, Jonathon Green’s Green’s Dictionary of Slang, in three volumes (2010), lists 1,740 words for sexual intercourse, 1,351 for penis, 1,180 for vagina, 634 for anus or buttocks, and 540 for defecation and urination. In the last few months alone there have been two new books: What the F, by Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive scientist at the University of California at San Diego, together with Adams’s In Praise of Profanity.
Another rich source is Melissa Mohr’s Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing (2013). Mohr even reads us the graffiti from the brothel in ancient Pompeii—disappointingly laconic (e.g., “I came here and fucked, then went home”), but good to know all the same.
They might even be worth reading, if you can stand the repetitiveness. The F word has a long and ignoble history. I particularly like "minced words," the decently veiled oaths beloved by people in the nineteenth century, who thought taking the Lord's Name In Vain was a terrible crime, and which are very useful when writing historical novels -- Good Godfrey and Gemini, for instance.
The review itself is certainly worth a good look.