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Oh the Profanity!

The use and abuse of words that pack a punch

12:00 AM, Oct 13, 2010 • By BARTON SWAIM
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It’s at least worth wondering, then, why film and fiction didn’t capitulate on the matter of filthy language (as it used to be called) until fairly recently. I have on my shelf a copy of James Gould Cozzens’s By Love Possessed, the bestselling novel of 1957. On page 507 the f-word appeared in the original. In the novel, the word comes from the pen of a reckless fool and is even described in the narrative as an “eye-jarring word.” But that wasn’t enough to mitigate its offensiveness in the eyes of the Book of the Month Club. My copy, a BOMC edition, replaces the word with four hyphens: “----.”

Were educated people really so prim in 1957? Maybe, but we carry vestiges of that same reticence even now. Leave aside federal laws about the use of hard profanity on the airwaves. Think of the way people actually talk. Even those who make frequent use of hard profanity have some sense that these words generally aren’t to be used to strangers. Asked by a waiter whether the lamb was satisfactory, there must be very few people who would respond, “Yes, it’s f—ing delicious, thanks.”

Why this discretion, even in so indiscreet an age as ours? Partly the answer has to do with what the words signify at a literal level. The more important part of the answer, though, has to do with their function: They lend otherwise ordinary sentences a feeling of aggression and menace. They turn commonplace sentiments, sentiments one might be inclined to ignore (“Turn the music down, please”) into expressions that grab you by the ears and force you to listen (“Please turn that s— down”). It’s that function of profanity—to heighten the importance of common utterances—that makes it so dangerous to useful thinking. Very few of our utterances are intrinsically important, and every sentence bearing the f-word (or one of its cousins) gets a promotion, deserved or not.

I used to work with a man who used the f-word as a weapon. When he felt threatened or angry, he would end every other sentence with a noun or adjective modified by the word “f—ing,” which he gave great emphasis: “I can’t abide any more of this f—ing evasion,” “That guy’s work is f—ing useless.” There would be a second of silence after each one, almost as if the word itself imposed a sense of deference on its hearers. You felt it was somehow ill-advised to disagree with him once the f-words came out. Not because he was dangerous or even because he’d react crossly, but because there must be some evasion going on if it’s “f—ing evasion” and work described as “f—ing useless” must at least be sub-par.

Outside of a battlefield or a bar fight, hard profanity is rhetorical cheating. It’s the forensic equivalent of pulling out a knife to win an argument. Certainly, films and novels full of bang words can appeal to an aesthetic of realism: People really do settle arguments with knives. But what used to be called filthy language distracts rather than clarifies, and not everything “real” is interesting.


Barton Swaim is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.

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