Wednesday, April 4, 2012
I have a favorite curse word…Scheiße. In the ten years since I began using it, I have not heard another person, outside of Germany, use it. I learned a remarkably versatile swear in French, but I mostly reserve that one for inner dialog! I utter my favorite under my breath usually during sporting events, like when Tom Brady might throw an interception, or when JD Drew would come to the plate during a particularly clutch point in the game, swing at a pitch that EVERYone in the park knew was going to be high and outside. Because my favorite cuss is in a foreign language, I don’t feel so nasty when I use it, but I use it sparingly, for my own satisfaction, never to assail someone else’s sensibilities. I strongly believe there are a time, a place and a choice for such words.
I may let an expletive fly when I drop an egg on the counter, bark my shin on a table, or when the cat knocks the picture frames of the bookshelf…again. But it is the very rare occasion when people hear me swear. This is so, by design and desire. I was reared in a world where nice people choose their words and consider the consequences of those words. I can count on two fingers the times I heard my parents utter a cuss other than “dammit” and that never in conjunction with the Lord’s name. When frustrated or faced with some sort of horse hockey, Mom would say “Bilge water!”. I use that term, as do my children, to this day, as a preferred expletive. But, once, my mother sliced her hand with a knife and she swore so loud and clear, it moved me to drive her quickly to the hospital. The time my dad cursed was when he discovered that a suitcase, containing his entire summer’s military pay, tumbled off the top of the station wagon somewhere along the New Jersey turnpike, lost forever. When they cursed, it meant something. My mother died of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the age of 51. If there were ever a time when folks would accept and understand a few choice words, it was then…but she never swore and she was a pillar of dignity to her last breath.
Growing up at a time when swearing was a sign of ignorance, coarseness or perhaps rebellion, I had heard about George Carlin’s comedy routine “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” (aka Filthy Words). I knew a few and had even tested social norms by using some in my tom-boy days and in tom-boy ways. I got spanked or my mouth washed out with soap when I got caught, too. When I was old enough to listen to the sketch via my cousin's recording of it, I was a bit shocked. I was mortified that I may have sounded like that to others. I resolved to do my best to never use those words. I decided I was smarter and more creative than stooping to that baseness, that vulgarity. Carlin did me and, I think, most of America a favor by poking fun at the government’s regulation on obscenity. For me, I learned that those words have impact and meaning and should be treasured, locked away until utilized at an appropriate time, if at all. Much like the Supreme Court’s opinion on obscenity, I know it when I see it, hear it or am subjected to it. Somewhere, somehow, prime time and cable TV took away the security from being assailed and thus, in my humble opinion began the decline of American society. It seems that there are only three maybe, four words left that cannot be uttered over the airwaves. With each obscenity and profane word foisted on us whether we like it or not, we grow numb to their impact and akin to violence in visual media; we are rarely shocked. This abdication of our sense of right and wrong, our insouciance about social bounds or lack thereof stains our moral fiber and sense of decency. With each thoughtless foul mouthed utterance, we become less than what we should be.
As I have grown older, had children of my own, and served in a profession that seeks to inform and improve the mind, I often found myself challenging young people to stop swearing and THINK…explore their vocabulary and stop people in their tracks with an amazing array of words that clearly, meaningfully and perhaps most importantly, respectfully convey one’s position, thoughts and feelings.
I recall a time, just a few years ago, when I popped in up at Groton-Dunstable High School and grabbed a quick hug from two of my daughter’s friends as they left the building for the day. As I moved to enter the building, I heard the young man say to his girlfriend, “Hurry up B----!” I quickly turned on my heel, eyebrow arched painfully high, and asked him, “Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?!”, and then turning to the young lady demanded that she never let him speak to her that way again. She is a beautiful, intelligent, woman who should never be thought of that way, never mind being verbally assaulted especially by someone who claimed to love her. They both apologized to me and him to her and I returned to my task at hand. In all likelihood, they had a few choice words for me once I was out of earshot, but in the four years since then, they have never cursed in my presence. I hope each time they get a hug from me, they recall that lesson, what I hope they recognize as a gift of civility.
My eldest daughter rarely swears. She has taken her grandmother’s philosophy about language to heart. So, when she does swear, she means it and people know she means it. My youngest, however has a more casual relationship with colorful language! I am forever bringing to attention that she seems to be using a particular four letter word starting with “s”, as a place holder, much like we used ‘um’ and ‘ like’ back in the day. And today, the f-bomb is so prevalent in common vernacular, it has little or no impact on the younger generations. I have to admit when I hear it used in mixed company, I blush and squirm in my discomfort.
There is a popular TV show entitled Inside the Actor’s Studio. The host, James Lipton utilizes a survey devised by French TV personality Bernard Pivot and based on Proust’s questionnaire. Celebrities are asked a series of ten questions, one of which is, “What is your favorite curse word?” I am usually, pleasantly surprised when most of the folks asked, pause, thinking long and hard, I hope with a modicum of embarrassment, before blurting it out…and it is almost always bleeped by the censors…but I can read lips. The other thing I‘ve noticed is about half the people offer a rationalization of when and why they use their particular favorite and the other just let the word hang, speaking for itself. In almost all cases, the audience roars with laughter and approval. I have to admit, there are times when a well-chosen epithet, uttered with impeccable timing and oft improbable circumstance made me guffaw. One of my favorites comes from a cute, little, romantic-comedy called “Return to Me”, starring David Duchovny, Minnie Driver and Bonnie Hunt, who also wrote and directed it. In one scene, the character portrayed by co-star Jim Belushi, in a stage whisper, calls a person as a “rat bastard”…and we don’t think much of it until…enter comedic timing and improbable circumstance… a his little “son” blurts out the same sardonic phrase, catching his screen parents and us off guard and we laugh. The scene and the language were not gratuitous…the discourse gave us a snapshot of a somewhat “normal” family and as the scene resolves with parents reacting, overreacting and left shaking their heads, we see that language matters and we do the best we can to shape our families to be better.
Free speech is often a common thread in discussions these days. This week via NPR, I learned of a high school senior who was expelled for tweeting a sentenced laced with profanity. The incident is still being investigated, but the gist of the matter seems to beg the question, when is it appropriate or not for such language? I’ve been privy to folks engaged in the topic, who shared favorite curses, colorful epithets, vulgarities, indecent turns of phrase… and I choose not to engage in the conversation. Honestly, I am not impressed with the arguments in favor of gutter language as a matter of social discourse. Also, I feel like I am darned if I do and darned if I don’t speak my mind, so thus far, I err on the side of caution and held my tongue.
For some reason, I am able to be more forgiving of cussing on the page…I suppose it is because I am intelligent enough to see it coming and can edit it in my mind’s eye and ear. For example, if the f-word shows up on the page, I read it as “f-word” or “f-bomb”, not the four letters spelled out…that is just my thing and it suits me fine. I can choose to stop reading if I don’t like it. I am aware that profanity on the page usually requires thought as to how it will help establish a scene, mood or move the story along. My frustration and angst arise when people are compelled to spew profanity and obscenity to titillate or self-gratify. “Oh, oh, look!” cried Mary, stabbing the air frantically with her crooked finger, “There is a child out on the ledge of that high-rise!”....and then her boob fell out of her blouse.” Admit it, you’ve all read or seen some variation on the theme…for me it detracts from creativity, although my husband might argue he lives for that stuff…<sigh>.
When people choose to curse and exploit a situation or because as adults, it is the thing to do, I feel a transgression against civility and an assault against language itself is occurring. From over-paid athletes to political leaders oblivious to open mikes, the disregard for one’s place as a role model and public person is so commonplace that it almost feels wrong to be offended when these high profile types do swear. However, I feel disrespected. And this conundrum is not limited to the public sector. Once, when I was with dear friends, and someone I consider family used what to me is the most despicable and deleterious four letter vulgarity every conceived, and before “tuh” of the last letter left his lips, my hand shot up and slapped the echo of that word from existence and left a bright red mark upon his cheek. I immediately apologized for slapping him, but told him that the sting of my hand would go away soon enough, but the memory of him using that word was graffiti-ed in my mind and forever changed how I thought of him.
As the course of recent cuss word dissertations has continued, it’s made me think about Carlin’s Filthy Words. One night, as I tossed and turned, perturbed by the day’s earlier confab, I came to a stark realization. Most, not all, but most of the curse words are some sort of derogatory statement directed at or about women…whether as an action, a label or vulgar description of female anatomy. No wonder I am uncomfortable. I guess this is another good reason to not shut up and bear it. How can a foul mouthed, cavalier orator know that I am offended and degraded by the power of words if I do not hold that person accountable for the choice of words expelled into a decent world? I have to be prepared that that person may not care how words can hurt…or that they hurt me…but it is certain that if I do not speak my piece and peace, nothing will change.
Being a teacher of history and politics, I find the first amendment a marvel and a privilege granted the citizens of the US. Freedom of speech is one of those tenets upon which we build a creative, free society. We have the right to pray, protest and be provocative. We demonstrate, promote and promulgate. We can stand up in a crowded theater and drop and F-bomb…but do not yell fire…you will find yourself violating other’s rights to be safe. But, can’t one argue that when you use foul-mouthed bloviating to focus on self-interest, you are doing the first amendment and your fellow movie-goers a disservice? I think so. Using a profanity for the heck of it, or to shock people or worse, hurt people is protected speech, is your right, but is it correct…is it really the best way one should communicate? I find it sad and ironic that “society” is more upset when people pray in public, but if you start cussin’…meh, folks aren’t that bothered.
Back to the recent discourse on filthy words, a couple of people indicated that the f-word was their favorite word…it’s so multi-faceted…could be used in so many interesting ways…so say they. I find it overused, insipid and trite. More often than not, when I hear that type of language, I tune out. You may think I am a prude…go right ahead, that’s your opinion…your judgment. I have my opinion, my judgments too…this is the consequence of our choice words.
My favorite word is annihilation, but it doesn’t really work as an alternate expletive, so I’ll often turn to another of my mother’s favorite words, phantasmagoric. How’s that for an “ph-bomb”? Imagine using that in place of one of the seven words you cannot say on TV…. It may get people’s attention and start some thinking about what you have to convey.