21 November 2001


21 November 2001

I remember the first time I heard my mother swear.  I was in my teens and she had dropped something heavy on her foot.  I was stunned.  A simple expletive was given extra-ordinary force because I had never heard my mother say that word*

That’s how I was raised.  Swear words were to be reserved for the rare occasion when no other word would do.  Swearing in my house, was not allowed and was considered crass and unimaginative.  Intelligent people didn’t swear.  

I don’t know how much of this message came directly and intentionally from my parents and how much came through my grandparents– especially my grandmothers.  I also don’t know how much of the message was directed at me because I was a girl.  I’ll have to ask my brothers some day if they got the same message.  All I know is that neither of them cuss in front of me.

As I got older and moved away from home I tried out swearing and I would say that today my language is much more ‘colorful’ than even I am aware of.

Now I have child.  A child who is very articulate and quick to pick up words adults use around him.  He is especially quick to use words he has heard used forcefully.  He is an aural mirror, reflecting what I say much more accurately than I would like.  I find myself watching what I say and listening to his speech carefully for ‘bad’ words.  fortunately he is not around a lot of swearing so his idea of a ‘bad’ word is any one he doesn’t want you to say.  Words like: bedtime, no more books, time to go upstairs, it’s nighttime, and nap-time are often considered to be ‘bad’ words in his world.

In contrast, I was once working with a younger man and every other word out of his mouth was the f-word.  It was his own special adjective– almost a form of punctuation.  This is a word I might use three times in a year.  It is a word I strongly dislike, but coming out of his mouth it was robbed of most of its power.  

That, I think, is the heart of cussing– words have power and some words have the power to convey very specific and uncomfortable messages.
I am not more intelligent than someone else if I choose not to swear.  I am not more creative if I use mild alternates in place of swear words.  Contrary to the classist messages I received as a child I am not a better person if I choose not to swear.  What I do gain by my choice of language is power.  Swear words repeated lose their ability to shock– to stop someone in their tracks and make them say ‘what did she say?’.  

Shock has its uses– why not save it for when you need it?

*an extremely mild cuss word by anyone’s standards.

No comments: