A few years ago, I added a kind of warning to my Twitter bio: “Prone to profanity,” it now reads. I did this for two reasons.
- ) Because it’s true.
- ) Because I knew I’d be swearing and, as such, I wanted to warn people who followed me.
It was an attempt to head off the kind of finger-wagging I suspected might come from more tight-lipped grammarians. You know, the kind who will tell you that cursing makes you “lazier,” or who, even worse, will chide you on its “unladylike” traits.
It’s largely worked. I rarely get trolled online for swearing. This is partially because swearing has become less and less taboo as time goes on and communication becomes more text-based than in previous generations and, I believe, in part because when people follow me, they can expect a few salty expletives.
But recently someone brought it up again. After praising my writing and reporting (which also often has swear words for reasons I’ll get to later), she asked me, point-blank:
Why do you use so many four-letter words?
She insisted she wasn’t passing judgement, but the question itself felt like a judgement. And, because of the context, she wasn’t so much asking why — instead, it felt like she was probing whether or not I was even capable of writing without the use of profanity. Had I, as the old cautionary tale goes, become unable to string together a series of words that didn’t involve at least one profanity?
I answered her honestly: First, because I can.
Purely and simply, swearing is something I can do—it’s not illegal in the contexts I do it (for example, I worked in radio for years and never once swore on the air).
Swearing is also something that is considered improper or unprofessional or otherwise displeasing due to the religious roots of “profanity.” The word “profane,” after all, originally meant something that was blasphemous. As a non-religious person, that really doesn’t matter much to me.
Later laws regarding swearing, too, were based on ideas which hold little water. In a piece entitled “The Science of Swearing,” authors Timothy Jay and Kristin Janschewitz point out that “the original justification for our obscenity laws was predicated on an unfounded assumption that speech can deprave or corrupt children, but there is little (if any) social-science data demonstrating that a word in and of itself causes harm.”
“A closely related problem is the manner in which harm has been defined,” continue the authors, “harm is most commonly framed in terms of standards and sensibilities such as religious values or sexual mores.”
Essentially, barring swearing has been a methodical attempt to repress religious and sexual freedoms. Neat.
Puritanical views about swearing are also deeply gendered. Swearing is, you will be told as a potty-mouthed little girl, not for ladies.
Writing for Hello Giggles, Kate Bigam expressed this sentiment pretty clearly:
I am a successful, confident, educated woman — and I also swear a lot. I swear not because I have a limited vocabulary but because sometimes swear words are simply the best words for expressing a given sentiment. I swear not because I lack class, but because I have too much self-respect to ever worry about whether my lexicon can be considered “ladylike”.
Swearing, particularly among women, has long been viewed as “trashy,” or “unbecoming.” Sure, a profanity from a man might draw a side-eye in the office or on the street, but not in the same way it would from a woman. We are brought up to view swearing as the purview of men.
In her 1975 paper, Language and a Woman’s Place, Robin Lakoff explained that this conditioning begins early. *
As children, women are encouraged to be “little ladies.” Little ladies don’t scream as vociferously as little boys, and they are chastised more severely for throwing tantrums or showing temper: “high spirits” are expected and therefore tolerated in little boys; docility and resignation are the corresponding traits expected of little girls. Now, we tend to excuse a show of temper by a man where we would not excuse an identical tirade from a woman: women are allowed to fuss and complain, but only a man can bellow in rage…
…Allowing men stronger means of expression than are open to women further reinforces men’s position of strength in the real world: for surely we listen with more attention the more strongly and forcefully someone expresses opinions, and a speaker –unable for whatever reason- to be forceful in stating his views is much less likely to be taken seriously. Ability to use strong particles like “shit” and “hell” is, of course, only incidental to the inequity that exists rather than its cause.
In a way, my choice to swear is a tiny method of reclaiming language that, for a long time, has not been viewed as accessible to me.
I also swear for more scholarly reasons. Chiefly, I find that swearing, when used properly, works.
Again, from “The Science of Swearing”:
…instead of thinking of swearing as uniformly harmful or morally wrong, more meaningful information about swearing can be obtained by asking what communication goals swearing achieves. Swear words can achieve a number of outcomes, as when used positively for joking or storytelling, stress management, fitting in with the crowd, or as a substitute for physical aggression.
Swearing, then, has a purpose — and it’s not just to upset pearl-clutchers.
According to Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought: Language As a Window Into Human Nature, there are several possible reasons why people swear, including catharsis (sometimes it just feels really good), abusive (that’s when you’re being hurtful, which I try not to do), or to emphasize a point.
Text and speech with swearing has been found in small studies to convey passion and to be viewed as more persuasive. And let us not forget that cursing, in moderation, has also been found to be a potent pain reliever.
Swearing also makes writing that would otherwise seem dull more colloquial. I like to swear because I like my writing, in some circumstances, to sound similarly to the way that I speak. But, of course, not always; in my day job, I write plenty of dry, AP-style, curse-free copy with little difficulty because I’m a writer and that is what we do to pay the rent.
This is particularly true in my work on Seattlish, a website that my co-founders and I started for the express reason of making local politics less ruthlessly boring and difficult to understand. Turns out, it works — we get affirmations daily from individuals letting us know that it wasn’t until they read our brand of profanity-punctuated reporting that they realized political and civic engagement weren’t limited to the language of C-SPAN.
Additionally, because Seattlish is a website run and written entirely by women (though it’s entirely unbylined), we find that swearing at times leads people to believe the authors are men and thus, unfortunately, leads them to take us more seriously, which I mostly just find to be an interesting social experiment.
I also believe in the power of language, and I believe in wielding it responsibly. I don’t believe in language that hurts people, I don’t believe in language that is exclusive. I don’t believe that people who have traditionally been in positions of power should utilize the language of those who have been abused, taken advantage of, or otherwise oppressed.
I believe that those of us (white people, cis people, able-bodied people, etc.) who have been in positions of power need to be careful with our language because there is no reason to break someone’s heart carelessly just because you wanted to exercise free speech.
But I also believe that language which offends people simply by existing but is not hurtful in its roots is not really hurting anyone. My casual swearing doesn’t break anyone’s heart. It doesn’t dig up centuries of systemic oppression. In fact, in some ways as I mentioned above, it does a teeny, tiny bit of work to subvert it.
Swears are also just plain fascinating, linguistically. As a dyed-in-the-wool word nerd, I think the etymology of curse words is unbelievably interesting. Really, you should read up some time.
“Oh,” say critics, “but your writing would be so much better if you didn’t swear.”
Really? Better in whose eyes? Better in what way?
Because to my mind, swearing is a part of my lexicon and one that I can employ without distracting readers or otherwise changing my story for the worse. Additionally, if you’re displeased by the presence of swears — if you’d prefer not to read them — I suspect you would probably also prefer to read someone else’s writing, and I’m fine with that. There’s plenty of it on the internet.
Which brings me back to the original question: Why do I use so many curse words? And it brings me back to my original answer:
Because I can. Because I’ve thought about it, I’ve considered it, and I’ve decided that it’s appropriate and fine and in some ways it’s meaningful. And because, as the science shows us, it feels good.
And about the question of whether or not it becomes a crutch? I completely disagree and am, in fact, quite sure that I can make it through an entire article without using a swear word.
See? I’ve just done it.
*A footnote: It deserves to be noted that I was not raised in a household where swearing was frowned-upon or gendered. In fact, when I was a child, the only “bad” words were the ones that were hurtful. “The H word,” as I knew it growing up, was “hate,” and once in kindergarten, I got in trouble for saying something “scared the Hell out of me” because I legitimately didn’t know that was wrong.
It was later explained to me that some people don’t like that language but that others don’t mind and to just make sure to always use that language around those who don’t mind. My parents were potty-mouthed but they were also very good at eloquently explaining things to me.
Photo by Flickr user Visual Panic