prophanity


On 23 September 2000 my Amtrak train made its scheduled hour-long stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Here I was interrogated for no obvious reason by a young FBI officer, a stiff gimp in a white polo shirt and baseball cap who treated me to a one-man good-cop-bad-cop routine. The guy was a walking failure in intelligence. He pretended to know everything about my movements in America, but relied entirely on guesswork; and everything he guessed, he guessed wrong. "We believe you boarded this train in Los Angeles," he said (I got on in Flagstaff). "So when you flew over here from England..." (I came from Ireland). Altogether, it was like watching a psychic act die on stage, and would have been funny if it wasn't so incredibly intimidating.

It is to the credit of the American mistrust in all things government that most people in my carriage thought the FBI guy was an asshole. (But this was before 9/11 and the media-driven terror paranoia: I wonder would they be so supportive now?) As soon as he was gone, half the people nearby were apologising to me and the other half were bemoaning the continued erosion of American freedoms. The larger-than-life conspiracy theorist in the seat opposite took up my cause with a most entertaining libertarian rant, made all the more entertaining by the knowledge that I lived five thousand miles away from this person. The rant was interrupted when the FBI guy made an unexpected return to ask me one last question: "Did you pack these bags yourself?" When he left, my libertarian friend could barely contain himself. "Who does he think he is? Fuckin' Columbo?"

Except he didn't say "fuckin'". Nor did he say "fucking", or "who the fuck", or anything of the sort. In truth, the expletive was a touch of colour I added later in my mind, an artist's attempt to improve on reality. "Fuckin' Columbo" is how someone in Dublin would have said it, or someone in a Tarantino movie. But the real live (admittedly middle-class) Americans I met hardly ever swore. Indeed, I was shocked, almost offended, by the lack of profanity I encountered in America. I went there expecting to hear movie dialogue, and all I heard was TV movie dialogue.

In visiting the States I had gone from being someone who swears no more than the next girl to being the most foul-mouthed guy on the block. In Ireland, everyone swears, all the time. No office is too high or too sanctified to indulge in profanity. Catholic priests regularly let a few "fucks" fly out of them, and statesmen curse like cardinals. Across the land, there are whole communities of people who can't utter a sentence without swearing, and swearing several times. The dialogue in The Commitments or The Snapper is not an exaggeration.

I've been swearing as long as I can remember, and I can't say that bothers me. Profanity, like shit, just happens. It's usually harmless. To someone with a different set of values, I can understand how a request like "Hand me over that fucking salt" might seem aggressive, but in fact it rarely is. The word "fucking" here actually conveys a certain endearment, a feeling that "we're on the same level". In some social groups, "Hand me over that fucking salt" is a great deal less offensive than "May I have the salt, please?", which could come across as belligerently genteel. We're not talking about impropriety, but a different code of propriety.

"Fucking" in the above sense has no offensive meaning, and indeed little meaning at all; it's merely part of the repertoire of bridge words, words that fill a temporary mental gap and keep a sentence running fluently. It's in the same family as kinda, sorta, like, well, y'know, um, uh, er and so on. Constant use of "fucking" and other bridge words may not be a sign of the most alert mind, but it's fairly harmless in speech (and almost never seen in written text). And there are other perfectly legitimate uses of the word "fuck". If used sparingly, it can be shocking, or outrageous, or funny, or all three -- whether used as an intensifier or in its original meaning. "Fuck" can lose its power and become tedious if overused, or used in the wrong place, but in that way it's no different from any other word.

Most English-language swearwords were originally inoffensive sexual or scatological terms that only acquired a taboo status through an increasing horror of human bodily functions. For this, the usual religious hangups are mostly to blame, though the advance of technology played its part too (modern sanitary facilities turned shitting from a public into a private activity). But our civilisation should now be mature enough not to have such irrational taboos, and we should welcome these words back as fully paid-up members of the language. "Arse", "fart", "piss" and "shit" are good Saxon words with a proud heritage, and almost always preferable to their various Latin euphemisms. Chaucer never shied away from writing "arse", and neither should you.

As shocked as some people are by profanity, I'm continually more shocked that they make such a big deal of it. People regularly jam the switchboards to complain about "strong language" on post-watershed TV, and there is a guy in the IF community who refuses to play any game with "prophanity". This attitude is pure superstition, based on an irrational belief in the inherent evil of "dirty words". Being offended by profanity is like being afraid of the Devil. If you just let it all go, "profanity" ceases to have any meaning; "fuck" becomes just another word. Like a voodoo fetish, it can only hurt you if you do your best to let it hurt.

There are some moral guardians who, while not averse to swearing themselves, say things like "I would never swear in front of a child". Why not? I tire of all this "sanctity of childhood" crap. From Stand By Me to Forrest Gump, the popular media has an obsession with the purity and innocence of childhood that borders on paedophilia. People are encouraged to be "childlike", but in truth there's almost nothing admirable about being like a child. Children are stupid, ignorant, selfish, fickle, gullible, over-sensitive, and irresponsible -- walking, crawling darwinian nightmares. About the best thing you can say about a child is that it doesn't know any better, and that it still has time to learn how to be a mature and interesting human being. If saying "fuck" destroys that bit of childhood "innocence", then so much the better.

Not that parents will ever succeed in protecting their kids from profanity. Anyone who thinks children never swear is deluding themselves. Holden Caulfield was dismayed when he saw "fuck off" written on a school wall, but then he should have seen my school wall, and my school. From baby infants on, school was like a non-stop swearathon, with tots as young as four and five competing to out-insult each other. We delighted in rude words, the sound they made, the effect they had; we seized on a new one like we seized on a toy. If anything, a rude word was better because it lasted longer. Far from corrupting children, discovering profanity is one of the joys of growing up.

The only really bad thing about profanity, as noted by Kurt Vonnegut in Hocus Pocus, is that it gives some people an excuse to ignore what you say: it's a quick get-out clause that lets them sidestep an argument with moral indignation. Remind me again -- are they the ones that are supposed to inherit the Earth? Or was that someone else?


index