Why you should care
Because sometimes we do things as a society — like curse a curse word — without understanding why.
I’m about to become a father. And among the many questions racing through my mind is an odd one I can’t yet answer. It’s not the existential question of whether I’ll be a good dad or the basic question of whether I’ll drop the baby while walking. It’s this: When my kid inevitably picks up a curse word from the playground and brings it home, and then I scold her and tell her that curse words are bad, she’s going to ask why. And therein lies the problem. Because I don’t have a good answer.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Tell the kid they just are!” And if I got that question today, that’s what I’d say, because it’s the perfect end-of-debate parental proclamation. But it’s also an easy out. It doesn’t explain why, when you put the letters s, t, i and h together in a certain, specific order, you sometimes have to censor one of them out (we’re guilty of it, we know). Nor does it explain why words like hate or dumb or fat or ugly, which affect some people as deeply as any curse word, are treated as a wholly different level of abuse. Bad, but not four-letter-word bad.
By banning profanity, Putin has made these words more powerful, more taboo, and — you have to assume — more likely to be used.
I’m not arguing that all words are just words. There are words laced with such toxic history that they should be banned. The N word. The C word. These are words that are used to denigrate, to isolate, to brutally shatter someone’s sense of self with just a few syllables of speech. But is that what the majority of curse words really do? Most of the time, they’re said in jest, or as a verbal tick along the lines of “like” or “um.” And when they are said with hate, it’s not history that makes them hurtful; it’s our decision, as a society, that curse words are offensive. Why is that again? Oh, yeah — “They just are!”
I’m obviously not the first person to raise this issue. Curse words have been around for an f-ing long time. (Fun fact: The F-bomb was first detonated centuries ago.) And for as long as they’ve been deemed worthy of societal scorn, there have been those questioning the impulse. George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” still stands as one of the great examples.
Anyone who’s watched The Wolf of Wall Street knows we’ve loosened up a bit since the time of Carlin’s rebuke. But elsewhere, things are headed in the opposite direction. This month, Russia actually banned the use of curse words by reporters, writers and artists.
What Russia did, while not surprising, is an extreme example of the odd logic-flow that surrounds the curse word. Russia has banned these words because they are, in Putin’s mind, a cultural blight. But by banning them, Putin has made these words more powerful, more taboo, and — you have to assume — more likely to be used. If you really want to end the prevalent use of curse words, isn’t the best strategy to just strip them of their celebrity import and force them to live the boring life of words like result or committee?
Try to think about the last time you noticed kids waiting for the adults to leave the room so they could say, “Bloody!”
Here’s what I propose: Let’s just all — all at once — stop feeling bad about curse words. No more flinching or frowning when someone swears. No more holding one back at work when you feel the urge (by the way, scientists actually think swearing may be good for your health). Once upon a time, I’d have to write b****y and b*****d instead of bloody and bastard because those were words you had to censor. Not anymore. At some point, we stopped feeling bad about those words. And when we stopped feeling bad, they stopped being infamous. Try to think about the last time you noticed kids waiting for the adults to leave the room so they could say, “Bloody!”
Which brings me back to my kid. I actually don’t want her to curse. But not because curse words are offensive. I don’t want her to curse because curse words are language at its most crass. Because curse words are a verbal crutch. Because more often than not, curse words are not that descriptive, which, in the end, is the core purpose of a word. At a time when she should be growing her mind and expanding her vocabulary, I’d hope that curse words, along with useless words, are left unfound until she’s an adult. But once she’s an adult, more power to her.
Until someone gives me a convincing reason why curse words are unqiuely bad, I’m going to treat them as what they are. No BFD.