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My Geek Demerits #3: Speaking and Writing Without Cursing

Full disclosure: I wrote 75% of the following piece in March 2012 in response to a question from a good online friend who finds it odd that I don’t use profanity, except in very rare cases when milder ones appear in proper nouns such as Hellboy.

I was raised in a household whose adults never used them in front of me. Like all children raised in such atmospheres, I learned them anyway from the neighborhood kids. I tried them out occasionally, and eventually developed a finely tuned on/off switch inside my head that worked instinctively whenever I entered or exited polite company. All throughout my young-stupid-male years, from high-school until my mid-twenties, they occupied one of the largest compartments in my communication toolbox.

When I changed career tracks in 2000, it didn’t take long for them to disappear from my spoken-word vocabulary. Not only did I want to project a more professional image, whether on the clock or off, I also found I was much more relaxed and less angst-ridden once the frustrations and disappointments of my previous job were lifted off my shoulders. In the twelve years since, I’ve uttered precisely one profanity aloud — one day as I walked around Monument Circle and came mere centimeters away from being flattened by a speeding white kidnapper van barreling around a corner flagrantly disregarding us pesky pedestrians. Losing momentary control of my tongue seemed a preferable alternative to losing control of my bladder.

For a time, my online interactions were a different story. Harsh language remained a part of my online communication because, frankly, it seemed like everyone else around me was doing it. Whether on Usenet or on message boards, it served as a necessary defense against the other dysfunctional participants and/or a badge to prove you were part of Team Internet. After spending much of 2002 rethinking my life in a number of serious philosophical ways (to put it with gross inexactitude), eventually I phased Carlin’s Seven Words and many of their lesser sidekicks out of my online responses and works as well.

The why of it all is a combination of thoughts and decisions accumulated over time.

When explaining this to my online friends, I started with the simple standard of the words labeled “profanity” as comprising the specifically designated section of the English language that is the immediate go-to choice of the ungodly and the unprofessional. Also from the Department of Other People’s Typical Responses, there are Bible verses to be cited. I’m actually terrible at memorizing Scripture for a convoluted reason that could comprise a short essay in itself, but Colossians 3: 8-10 comes closest to nailing what occurs to me from the basic Christian standpoint.

Beyond those, I naturally added bullet points about why I don’t cuss anymore:

* People use it too often when they want themselves to be taken SERIOUSLY, when in fact they’re basically just being hostile. They use contempt as a cheap substitute for confidence.

* People admire them, especially the F-word, for their ridiculously flexible use in nearly every part of speech, to describe, modify, or reductively summarize just about anything that comes to mind, regardless of whether they’re being complimentary or derogatory. I’m of the opposite mind. A word with unlimited uses effectively becomes meaningless and cries out to be replaced by more vivid descriptors. The English language is a sophisticated system with plenty of alternatives, especially if it’s being used as a needless synonym for “very” or too shorthand a dismissal of a bad person, place, or thing. If I’m fully conscious of what I’m writing (as opposed to blithely typing on the fly for everyday back-and-forth with others), I try to avoid ubiquitous multi-purpose words like “make”, “do”, or “get” on similar principle.

* They’re an easy way to cut yourself off intentionally from a wider audience. If you only want to be read by people exactly like you, it’s your privilege as an artist to cater to them as you see fit. If you want to be read by anyone not like you, realize that there’s a cultural demographic out there whose thoughts on this subject are more simplistic than mine, but who’re less likely to cut you the necessary slack to tolerate your indulgence. Puerile direct-to-DVD family movies turn a tidy profit for a reason, and it’s not because they’re being used for skeet shooting.

* Conversely, no one worth paying attention to will reject a given work for not having enough cursing. I’ll grant you that substitutes like “frag”, “frick”, “frig”, et al., are aesthetic abominations, but most works — well-liked classics, even — managed for decades without resorting to lowest-common-denominator-speak. I’m not convinced All About Eve would’ve been twice as epic if Bette Davis had talked more like Sarah Silverman. Or take something as recent as Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which had more colons than profanities. Amazingly, it didn’t suck and moviegoers flocked to it. I can also add an extra paragraph about the adult virtues of the average exemplary Pixar film as generally quality material that never lacks for emphatic dialogue.

* I would be lying if I said I limit myself to reading or watching G-rated material. And yet, it’s one thing to recreate a harsh reality (The Wire, Saving Private Ryan) or achieve a specific artistic effect (Glengarry Glen Ross, Reservoir Dogs). Sadly, not everyone is David Mamet or David Simon. Precious few people are, in fact. It’s another thing altogether to use it just because it’s ostensibly “funny” (see: countless R-rated comedies that don’t understand the concept of the punchline) or just, y’know, expected. “Everybody does it” is not only one of the worst excuses for doing anything ever, and among the absolute best methods for perpetuating stupidity, it’s also inaccurate. When overused in a movie or other work, each word becomes like a jarring CD-skip to my ears. After too many CD-skips, I tend to lose my concentration and interest. I prefer not to provide the same disservice to others, whether they share that issue or not.

Bottom line for me personally: nowadays I’ve found I can accomplish my aims well enough with tone, expression, vocab, craft, and occasionally volume if need be. I’m not forced at gunpoint to use profanity as a crutch any more than I’m required by law to work the words “esophageal” or “blunderbuss” into conversation every day. But that’s just me.

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4 responses

  1. I don’t curse or swear more other than something very, very mild once in a great while. As a Christian, I can’t reconcile it with what God says, so I don’t. I think there are plenty of other words you can use and our language is rich enough not to need cursing. I grew up in a family where no one cursed and it still jars me, no matter how much I hear.

    janet

    Like

    • No one in my household cursed while I was growing up, but my dad’s side of the family indulged in more than its share of sailor-speak. And of course it was all around when I first started making friends around the neighborhood, and then at school in later years, and then when I got my first job…I was surrounded by it on several sides for a good couple of decades. It sounded weird not to join in and conform. And I was so good at it, too!

      Eventually I found plenty of reasons to set myself apart from those crowds, even if it meant sticking out like a sore thumb. It took a while to come to the decision, but I’ve found it’s a much more peaceful way to live. 🙂

      Like

  2. Pingback: The Official MCC Guide to Finding Joy in Blogging All Wrong | Midlife Crisis Crossover

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