Magic Words

The lost art of swearing.

Nick Frost
Apr 22, 2015 · 6 min read

Since the dawn of time, language has been both a blessing and a burden to the human race. And it all began, arguably, when we decided there simply weren’t enough grunts, snarls or growls to convey the intensity of our feelings and the complexity of our thinkings.

At first, I imagine we humans used sounds mostly to denote caution, alert attention, or as a form of autochthonous communication. Language as we know it started off as limited as it was primitive, a series of guttural sounds communicating simple concepts such as fire hot, me-hungry and Lion! Behind you! (Coincidentally the same phrases you’ll hear at just about any South African braai.)

We quickly grew discontent with our inadequate arsenals. So began our quest for expressive enlightenment. The journey to further broaden our vocabularies led us to the this very moment, the present, where we’ve invented sounds not only to describe that which we can touch, taste, hear, see and feel, but also all the other stuff. The invisible stuff: anxiety, loneliness, fear, hate and love.

These days, while complex concepts like love and hate are far less of an imminent threat than say, a Sabre-Toothed Tiger (although no less deadly), to us they are as real a feeling as anything else. And all because we had to go open our big fucking mouths and invent language.

So where exactly do curse words fit into this enormous, multi-purpose, borderline unnecessary lexicon? What the fuck even are they? Are they just sounds become habit like hello, goodbye or fine thanks and you? Surely not? Are they just substitutes for more functional and ultimately more satisfying exchanges or are they simply half-assed attempts at basic human expression, designed by those too lazy to learn new words?

After much illuminating research and a little digging, I can quite confidently confirm that these notions are utter bullshit.

Swear words = magic words.

Yes, swearing should be a rare occurrence — not because swear words themselves should be avoided altogether, but rather, the situations that necessitate them. If I may quote George Carlin:

“There are no bad words. There are bad thoughts, bad intentions… and words.”

The point is, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with a curse word itself. But overused swear words are like multiple exclamation points (some people god forgive them are quite fond of using both). Over-seasoning your language with bitter curse words makes for little more than a colourful non-exchange, a form of communication so tedious it begins to grate against the mind.

I suspect the gratification one enjoys when swearing is a result of physically pleasing phonetics, perhaps even the rhythm of the sounds, or a combination of these two factors. Kind of like letting off the brain steam built up from accumulated frustrations.

It’s important to remember that there aren’t people who swear and people who don’t swear. It’s not so black and white. We all swear in our own way. Sure, there are people out there who refuse to use the words society has deemed “inappropriate”, but more times than not you’ll find that these individuals will substitute words — often incredibly similar words like fudge in lieu of fuck — with the same intent and to the same effect.

Thus we can determine that the art of cursing (because that is very definitely what it is: an art) can indeed be nurtured, nourished, honed and ultimately harnessed to full fucking effect when the time calls.

American author and humorist, Mark Twain, was of the notion that cursing could often bring about more relief than prayer. In fact, many a renowned and celebrated historical personality has demonstrated a more-than-adept grasp on the art of cursing. Want to tear a leaf out the book of one of the most expert insult overlords to ever walk the face of the earth, look no further than English poet and playwright, William Shakespeare, who himself coined hundreds of lilting literary gems in his time. For example:

Thou art as loathsome as a toad, thou art as fat as butter and (my personal favourite), thou art the son and heir of a mongrel bitch. Quality.

Literarily speaking, swearing can also signify a shift in perception. For example, in British novelist JK Rowling’s phenomenally successful Harry Potter series, there is not a single curse word to be found (apart from in the wizardly sense) right up until Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final in the series. You probably remember the part. At one point, Mrs Weasley exclaims, “Not my daughter, you bitch!” and she’s echoed by an entire planet of readers losing its collective mind.

While this brought Rowling a slew of media attention, much of which was negative, it signified a maturity, not only of the story’s protagonists, but also in the minds of Rowling’s audience. These children had grown up with the Hogwarts crew, and for the most part, Harry & Co. had made stellar role models. But now, I imagine Rowling thinking to herself, it’s time they learn that in life there’s no substitute for a swear word — even for those capable of wielding actual magic.

I’m the least qualified person when it comes to monitoring and moderating how children adopt and adapt to curse words — in fact I’m the least qualified person when it comes to anything children-related. But I’d wager a guess that it’s more a case of teaching social cues than teaching kids not to swear. At least, that’s how I grew up, and I’m pretty fucking well adjusted thank you very much.

Honestly, if your kid isn’t taught basic conduct and societal norms, forbidding him or her from cursing is not really going to help anything. In fact, it’s lazy. Kids need to know that there’s a time and a place for using swear words. Once they grasp this, they’ll be better equipped to harness these words safely and in any way they feel is necessary.

Arm your children with these powerful linguistic darts, teach them how to hit a target, and then, leave them to play.

On whether swearing is ever necessary, British actor, writer, comedian, author, playwright, poet and host, Stephen Fry, has this to say:

“It would be impossible to imagine going through life without swearing, and without enjoying swearing. It’s not necessary to have coloured socks. It’s not necessary for this cushion to be here. But is anyone going to write in and say, ‘I was shocked to see that cushion there! It really wasn’t necessary’? No. Things not being necessary is what makes life interesting.”

I think that just about fucking settles it.

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Nick Frost

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How do I know what I think until I see what I say?

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