I have terrible vocabulary, I swear. No, literally. I swear like my life depends on it. Perhaps not to the degree a rapper might, but definitely on the level of David Fincher (seriously, listen to the director commentary on Se7en). And the thing is, I don’t disrespect these people for their word choice. In fact, I greatly admire Mr. Fincher and, to a lesser extent, many rappers (Ludacris reigns). Is swearing such a bad thing? A free-spirited use of the English language to someone like me is an affront to the delicate sensibilities of another. On on the hand, I can’t blame them for wanting to draw the line, but warn of going too far.
NBC Today posed the question, in several presumably short interviews, “what is your opinion of the presence of swear words in pop culture?” The answers they aired revealed a negative reaction. And not just from crotchety old folks hosing kids off their lawns. I have several friends who quietly disapprove of my flippant use of the S-word, the F-bomb and many other crude exclamations too. Under the pretense of the First Amendment, I express myself how I please and expect nothing less from others. But this is casual discourse – a colloquial expression of myself through words in a private setting. The backlash of these words comes mainly, I feel, from people trying to protect younger minds from this apparently corrosive vocabulary. One woman in the piece believes it’s a sign of lack of education. Education implying higher learning at a state institution, I assume. What she fails to see is swearing is an education of the times.
Looking back, words come and go from the lexicon. The death of ‘verily’ is still a point of mourning for me. But mainly of these dirge-worthy words were, at their own time, considered inappropriate or faint-inducing. Shakespeare in his time was considered crass. Though studies of his work now evoke images of hallowed halls and higher education, much of his audience were peasants. The under-educated lower class who were granted entry to the Globe Theatre for about a penny required entertainment on their level, even if that meant characters flinging insults and epithets left and right. Or, from my favorite play of his, a character’s basis for marrying a woman solely hinging on the fact that she had pendulous breasts (oh, Touchstone, you cad). It’s indelicate, but it’s hilarious and a free-thinking expression of an idea. Who’s to tell that incorrigible Shakespeare to censor himself? We censor movies and music without much of a thought regarding how useful a curse word can be, as outlined by Monty Python.
To bring education into the equation is a moot point. My favorite professor in college, a ridiculously well-read and educated man, would occasionally release expletives with grace, humor and intelligence. There’s the line. Not just spouting obscenities as if to replace other, more useful words is the true art of swearing. Taking a lesson from Shakespeare, I suppose most of the use of crass language is most effective and less offensive when utilized for comedy. Though not exactly Love’s Labors Lost, an SNL sketch featuring Gwyneth Paltrow and Cee Lo Green creates less colorful, yet funny, phrases to describe the hit “Fuck You” and turns up humor in a way that acknowledges the ludicrous nature of trying to match the emotive and cathartic punch of a good F-bomb while ribbing our culture’s obsessive need for linguistic decency. (The humor calls to mind the ridiculous “replacement phrases” some movies acquire when aired on cable. You know, the phrases that can humorously ruin dramatic tension.) The song in question uses the word so effectively, it’s hard to imagine any other word able to describe the feeling of betrayal, but that didn’t stop censors from trying. The radio edit, “Forget You” lacks the punch the original possesses. ’Fuck’ is such an aggressively awesome word, ‘Forget’ is something you do to your house keys on a tired morning. Censoring in this small regard is stifling, almost making a joke of an artist’s message. ”It’s all the same.” No. It’s not.
I can understand the protection of those poor, impressionable minds, but again I must regard this as a failure to keep up with the times. In an age precariously poised on a ledge, it’s counterintuitive to preserve innocence. (I’m still working on how swearing intones a loss of such a thing.) Much like drugs, telling someone not to do something breeds curiosity which leads to secret experimentation. It’s akin to the Christian guilt thing – keep your ‘sins’ close to the vest, let them fester as shame. If something is no longer forbidden, perhaps it won’t become such a fascinating thing to use. We’re so hell-bent on censoring these select words in a myopic battle to reclaim decent language, that we’ve given them power. (Did you notice, by the way, in the NBC Today piece, the word ‘Hell’ is censored in the background? So many dyed-in-the-wool Catholics I know are doomed for this one.) This calls to mind the horror unleashed by the fictional television studio of South Park in an episode constructing the origin story for ‘curse words’. Daring to say ‘shit’ as many times as possible in one half-hour releases a malevolent force set to destroy humanity. It’s funny because it’s completely ridiculous. And certain artists recognize this. Nick Minaj ends “Roman’s Revenge” with the line “wash your mouth out with soap, boys” as an acknowledgement of how ludicrous it is. At once venting frustration with censorship, the line is also a tongue-in-cheek finger-wag – what would change if she and Eminem said one less curse word? (This particular YouTube lyric-fest censors the text, which is oddly funny given the point.)
While decency preservationists build profanity proof shelters for their families, I’ll keep freely using swear words, especially against the new lexicon: the truly evil acronym system of technology. Call me hypocritical for this, but can we at least agree swear words are actual words? Whether or not they bring about the End Times is up for scrutiny, but the end of the English language is an absolute affront to my sensibilities. OMG, BRB, LOL, etc. present a problem bigger than swearing: Language Death. If you were to ask me, these intone a lack of ‘education’. Especially consider LOL (or ‘laugh out loud’) in that it is grammatically incorrect as you cannot do anything out loud, but you can aloud. The free use of lazy abbreviations is a sign of things to come, ushered in by the Broadband Generation. Read much of the internet and find a gross abuse of the English language without correction. Take for example Texts From Bennett. Bennett, being self-possessed and a self-proclaimed gangsta, breaches the limits of incorrect spelling and failed grammar acrobatics. When the poster deigns to correct him, Bennett lashes back with unparalleled certitude that he is correct and the poster is dumb. This is an extreme example, but holds water all the same. In a time of increased impatience for new information, we’re headed for an atrophied language, one that disregards beauty and creativity in favor of ease despite its grammatical improprieties. Call me a traditionalist, but fuck that.