To Swear or Not to Swear

Last week my boss at NASA told me a funny joke:

Boss:     “What did the fish say when it swam into a wall?”
Me:        Is she really telling me a swear-joke?
Boss:     “Dam.”
Me:        “Heh. Heh. My older sister–”
Boss:     “What did the wall say back?”
Me:        “. . .”
Boss:     Dumb Bass.

I laughed. I hadn’t heard the postscript.

Now I’ve offended someone. Probably you  in the plaid dinner jacket. . . You’re constantly plombing this blog for inspiration, and now you’re appalled that I laughed at a swear-joke and doubly appalled that I actually repeated it. . . in e-print. You put down your tablet and almost vowed to never read this blog again. You considered turning to Dave Barry for inspiration. [Not a bad idea, by the way.]

But you didn’t. You wanted to see if there was a point to this, and there is: The other readers are now laughing at your expense. “Lighten up. It’s just a little swear,” they chuckle. “And funny.”

And some of my edgier readers aren’t laughing either. They’re busy making up their own swear-jokes this instant, and salty ones at that. [I heard that Rusty.]

I had a wonderful relative that said the d-word every time he hit his head on something, which happened rather frequently. Bedposts, chandeliers, and open cabinets we’re always gunning for him, and he rewarded them with the finest “dammit’s” money can’t buy.

Some in the family laughed. Others tried to bribe him to stop. He wanted to, but short of padding his head with a pillow, it was pretty clear he’d never kick the habit . Blunt object to the head? Automatic D-word.

The fine gentleman’s gone to a better place now, but is probably still accidentally banging his spiritual noggin and cursing away. Some of the angels are frowning, too, and some are laughing, and I suspect a few of the edgier sort are telling swear-jokes of their own, like they used to do back on Earth:

J. Kimball:          “Hey Peter, how do you make holy water?”
Saint Peter:        Sighing. “Not again. . .”
J. Kimball:          “You boil the hell out of it! ”

My point in blogging about it? Use it sparingly. Profanity affects different people in different ways.

Dr. Richard Stephens, in his paper “Swearing as a response to pain” indicates that the use of profanity can make a thing hurt less. We know intuitively (unless you’re better than me) that the occasional D-word does seem to make things better, at least if you’re the one saying it.

But profanity evokes an emotional and physical response from recipients as well. I’ve seen the effect of my profanity on friends and family members in flushed cheeks, fallen faces, and unhappy eyes. Curse words pack an emotional punch because they are laden with the layered meanings of our cultural taboo. Interestingly, shouting “Ow” is also shown to have an analgesic effect (Annett Schirmer), but without the same proximity fallout. And nowadays, shouting “Ow” might get a few laughs, too. Not to shabby.

Clinical evidence of the effects of swearing are demonstrated in a study by Jeffrey S. Bowers and Christopher W. Pleydell-Pearce at the University of Bristol. Bowers found that the use of swear words, even by fully-informed test subjects, provokes an electrodermal response. In less-accurate layman’s terms, swearing is stressful and makes you sweat.

So why do we swear? Certainly not to join the army of “unsure” lampooned on antiperspirant commercials. Swearing happens for a variety of reasons, depending on the person: to shock, to express frustration or another strong emotion, to be trendy/funny/cool, or automatically, because we’ve adopted it into our knee-jerk vocabulary.

One interesting assertion that Dr. Stephens makes: those who swear frequently also demonstrate a lower tolerance for pain. Excessive use of profanity appears to affect the way we perceive the world around us and lessen our ability to cope.

There’s more research to be done, but the current evidence suggests it might be wise to go easy on the four-letter words. My sister told me that dam (damn?) joke years ago, and it’s stuck with me. How many jokes do you remember from the late ’90’s? Those words stay with us, and they affect the way we view the world.

And profanity does different things to different people, based on our own experiences and cultural context. We get an emotional jolt when we use a “power” word, but we don’t control the messaging that occurs in the hidden mental folds of those we interact with. That effect was developed over time in the recipient’s experience base long before we came around brushing up on our sailor-speak.

So as fun as it might be, I probably won’t be telling abundant swear-jokes, or carving those words into my books. I may occasionally review a book with excessive profanity, but won’t reuse the stronger words here. I enjoy authors who take the time to create and control their own cultural and emotional context without borrowing too heavily from the raft of modern profanity.

Is this the definitive post on swearing? Hell no. But it works for me.

Blue Dam

5 thoughts on “To Swear or Not to Swear

  1. Ben,

    I totally agree about using profanity sparingly in your writing. I have always found that a well placed four letter word will have more power when it hasn’t been used before. Even better is when you can get the reader to expect an F bomb or something equally crass and instead insert something innocuous and funny (See every Saturday morning cartoon produced by Warner Bros between 1971 and 1995 for good examples).

    Personally I like the rules that best today’s modern stand ups use in talking about profanity. Don’t throw just around a F*&^ or a SH#T or a D@)(IT like litter on the ground. Use it with force and intent, and own it. As with all vocabulary, different words have different meaning in different places. Curse words are no better than SAT words if used incorrectly.

    Here is a hilarious video of four greats of comedy discussing the power of the F word. It isn’t for the faint of heart, but it gets the point across.

    Now go wash your mouth out with soap.

    Good one Ben!

    1. And sometimes “power” words are simply a short cut through the neighbors yard. It gets you somewhere quick, but you may have trampled the geraniums enroute.

      I’ve been impressed with a few authors who borrow sparingly from our “lesser cannon” and create a new literary culture for their world-one that fits and holds unique meaning for their characters. Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan do this. Howard Taylor also does this in his webcomic Schlock Mercenary. This works well for fantasy and science fiction. In contemporary fiction it’s especially tempting to cut corners.

      1. I’ve especially enjoyed listening to Sherwood Andrrson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.” The man creates brilliant, unflinching portraits of characters and their views without resorting to certain words. Some of that may be due to time period: profanity may have been less publishable in his era. Whatever the reason, the result is brilliant and refreshing.

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