January 21, 2010
Raise your hand if you get frustrated. Now keep the middle finger up if you curse on a daily basis. Lewis Black once famously said that if you step into a particularly cold morning and you don’t at least curse in your mind, you have anger issues.
He may have a point.
Certain words have the power to make people gasp, cringe, or otherwise run to the nearest censor for validation that the ears and souls of children have been tainted by words! Who will think of the children!? They just heard and/or read something that will stunt their growth, lead them away from Baby Jesus, and make them smoke. At least, that’s the reaction I see every time someone slips on live television and says something “naughty.”
We’re all familiar with cursing, mostly because we have so many safeguards for it and are constantly reminded of what steps someone else has taken to ensure we never have to deal with it. We have the FCC in the United States, parental controls on televisions, internet filters, positions within companies and government bodies designed to keep language in check, both in the office and when dealing with others, and any number of language speed bumps both imposed by others and personal. We have a cultural aversion to certain words. We’ve given them power. This in itself isn’t revolutionary, so I’m not expecting a Pulitzer for this article. What does intrigue me is the idea that the words themselves, not necessarily the meaning, make people uncomfortable. Even more amazing is that swearing is less taboo than, say, gratuitous violence or gore. Why? Why do these words have so much power? Is-
Wait… Before we go any further, why do we call the use of profane language “cursing”? Or even “swearing”? Dictionary.com wasn’t any help, simply listing the various definitions and origins of the words, but not going into detail on why we are said to curse and swear when using profanity. A curse is something that is bad luck, something designed to hurt something or someone. A curse is something terrible. It’s an ill-omen, the full moon, blood dripping from the walls and little kids appearing in the hallway, and I’ve seen enough horror movies to know that none of these things is good. What about swearing? Swearing is supposed to be, according to Dictionary.com, the act of making a powerful declaration, typically upon something holy or divine. The examples it gives are the Bible and a deity. I won’t deny certain swear words can indeed be powerful and denote a great deal of emotion, but I don’t think this was the original intent. These two euphemisms for using foul language just make things more confusing. They mean opposites!
Anyway, back to the main topic: the power of profanity. All of us watch television. It’s unavoidable. Certain shows and channels don’t use expletives, so they either beep them out, which is distracting, or they re-dub the line with another word or phrase, usually to unintentional comic effect. We hear “heck” for “hell” and “crap” instead of “shit.” Here’s where things get interesting though, because no matter what euphemism we use, we’re still relaying the same meaning. If I stub my toe and yell “Aw, excrement,” I’ve conveyed the same meaning as actually using language the FCC would ban. If I were a television station, I would have gotten fined…
Thank you, internet.
Why do we allow the “tame” version but not the full expletive? It can’t be the meaning. Both phrases mean the same thing, and it’s the same intent!
Is it the WORD itself? The spelling, the specific arrangement of letters? Do we see them, not as a series of symbols, but rather an alchemical formula for something so devious that merely looking at or hearing these words will cause untold damage? Will it curse us? Will God strike us down? Shall it open the Forbidden Gates and unleash a torrent of Lovecraftian abominations to besiege our sanity?
Something is at work here. All these profane words can’t simply have power in on themselves, can they? Just because we say one word for another, does it make it better?
Apparently, television standards say it does. When the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica went on the air in 2004, the writers decided to keep the made-up swear word “frak” (spelled “frack” in the 1970’s version) so they could have their characters curse and swear without having to use bleeps or cut the audio. “Frak” has the same meaning and connotations as its equivalent four-letter F-word and characters use in the same colorful ways.
This sounds strange since BSG premiered and aired on SyFy, a channel over which the FCC has no jurisdiction to censor language. However, all television shows in the United States receive a rating and BSG already had a TV-14 rating due to violence and mature themes. I guess when the good guys resort to torture and suicide bombings, you have to make a few concessions. It makes sense to want to make it as easy as possible to syndicate the show on networks that aren’t under the same level of freedom, so “frak” was born.
Orson Scott Card wrote that if a writer wants to use made-up foul language, it had better be for a good reason, but it was simply easier to use real profanity. It really does have the capacity to sound downright stupid. And yet, sometimes, it works. Farscape got away with a plethora of alien cursing that does sound like word soup, and yet the viewer gets so involved in the action that the meaning of the words comes through, not whatever strange alien phrase just popped out of someone’s mouth.
Just like “frak,” Farscape’s cursing worked. Some of these made-up oaths have even bled over into popular culture.
The unfortunate thing is that we’re back to where we started. It’s not the intent and meaning itself that society objects. It can’t be. The euphemisms mean the same thing as the original word, and we’ve shown we can substitute new words that make no sense but still have the exact same meaning, even similar phonemes. Process of elimination says that the words themselves are the problem, but why are we so afraid of so much language? Is it the association these phrases and terms have attained as being used by the uneducated, the callous, or the amoral? It must be. We don’t want our youth exposed to such filthy words!
Wait, don’t we see blood splatter, open bodies, and murder on CSI, Law and Order, every cop show in the last fifteen years, and, oh yes… FX aired a slightly edited version of Starship Troopers a month after 9/11. The only thing they cut out was the profanity and left in every Bug-induced murder. How do I know? I watched it. Every week, millions of us watch dismemberments, dead bodies, and all manner of gooey fun on basic cable, and it’s the kind of thing that you’d see in a Saw movie. Don’t get me wrong. I love these shows. I just wonder who thought saying “shit” was wrong but THIS was fine:
We seem to have more disdain for specific words, specific sounds, than we do for violence. When the recent red band trailer for the movie Kick Ass came out, a lot of people were outraged over an 11-year-old girl using the c-word and cursing like a sailor, and yet fewer were bothered by, oh… same girl cutting off a man’s leg, shooting someone in the head, and making John Preston look downright arthritic. It’s a perfect example of the kinds of weird standards we seem to have infused into every corner of society. Violence, gore, and dismemberment? Fun! Someone swears? Shock and gasp and a hefty fine!
It’s dumb. What do these words do? They describe. That’s all they do. They do have societal consequences, sure, but that’s because we all “know” they’re bad words. I tell my students that “Why?” is the most important question they can ask in college. If you understand the cause of something, you know more about it. You can come at an argument from a different angle. You have power. Even in Harry Potter, they knew that not saying Voldemort’s name made him more powerful. The only reason we don’t use this language is because we’ve stigmatized it. Why? Because it’s bad. Why? Because we’re not supposed to use it. Why? Because it’s stigmatized. Why?
Do you see the pattern?
Language is a tool. That’s it. It expresses ideas and it is, admittedly, imperfect. Until we develop telepathy, it’ll have to do. We’re uncomfortable with these terms because our society has certain taboos against sex, defecation, and other topics, so the words used to describe them are obviously going to have their own taboo, yet euphemisms for these terms don’t bother us. Only highly specific terms will get you in trouble.
What the frak?