A Good Word about Naughty Words
August 15, 2012
I’ve had trouble with the illogical all my life. The quirk showed up early, but didn’t take hold until the cussword discussion took place in our household. I don’t remember exactly what set it off. If I had to guess, I’d say I innocently used one of the banned words in conversation. It was the minor leagues of the naughty words division, merely a damn or hell level of offense. But that was the day I learned swearing was forbidden in our home.
I didn’t immediately capitulate. “Why are some words bad and all the rest okay? They’re all just words,” I said.
That little piece of illogic, coupled with the challenge it sparked, was how my fascination with swearwords got its start. I began with English expletives, but with each new language I acquired, either through serious study or just in bits and pieces, I accumulated a decent multilingual sampling of its cuss words.
Latin, of course, was a disappointment. It was almost like the church cursed it with clean language. And you can forget German. Their swearwords are so long that by the time you get from one end to the other, you can hardly remember what it was that set you off. Italian, ah, now there’s a language to cultivate if you like to swear. Their swearwords often sound like the notion they represent, making their delivery immensely satisfying.
I came to learn some Spanish non-mentionables when my poor pronunciation had me order testicles instead of eggs, much to the chagrin of the young Columbian I was having breakfast with. But the Chinese I met in Western Canada were the most fun of all. Little tiny Cantonese grandmothers would walk down the streets of Edmonton, and let rip in their native tongue what we consider the A+, top-of-the-line swearword, whenever they chose.
The gold star, however, goes to Canada. Now there’s a culture that doesn’t pull punches when it comes to swearing. Even the Prime Minister, in a moment of frustration, was accused of mouthing the “F” word in parliament. The press looking for a story pushed on for the facts, but the Canadian public understood the intent and laughed itself silly when Pierre Elliott Trudeau said he used the word fuddle duddle instead.
Maybe it’s Canada’s closer ties to the land that have seemingly legitimized cussing. Having farmed for near fifteen years, I know just how many ways there are to slam some part of your anatomy into a piece of equipment. It would get downright boring if you didn’t have a complement of expletives to help you endure your own stupidity.
Even my mother, moral majority of one in our household, fell from grace on her visit to Canada. Her virtue took an unholy turn as she sat riveted watching a late night movie set in The Maritimes. Those fishermen can sometimes trump even farmers and loggers for colorful language. My then-mate tattled on her and told me how she asked him if there would be another such movie on before her visit ended.
My point? Why do we bother arguing for or against the use of expletives? The illogic of one word being fine and the next raising moral indignation is boggling enough. But what I find even more jarring as a writer, is to meet a character in a novel crafted for a temperament or situation where swearing is commonplace, but the words don’t appear.
If swearing is a natural counterpart to the character you’ve created, to withhold that language places the character in the odd position of no longer being the author of his actions. Authenticity and credibility go out the window. If such coarse language offends, the solution isn’t to outlaw swearing or legislate language within genres [See Stephen Woodfin’s: God Is Watching You, or Maybe He Needs a Little Help http://bit.ly/My53lS ], but to create a character or circumstance that wouldn’t normally engage such language.
In a culture that has no qualms depicting gore, unending violence, deceit, betrayal and the valuing of money over human life, the issues around expletives seem downright silly.
Words are there at our bidding, all words, and what the art of writing asks of us is only that we use them correctly, artfully, ingeniously, expressively, and honestly. Art doesn’t come with a moral imperative. It issues from our intuitiveness, not our intellect. And the beauty of art is that if it bows to anything at all, it is only to a deeper truth, not rules nor regulations.
Christina Carson is author of Dying to Know, one woman’s quest for truth and healing.