Angry Wild Legends

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I could Swear

When you walk down the street – past a schoolyard, near to a group of lounging teenagers, outside a pub wherever – you will not have to go far before your ears pick out certain words, key words, critical words, earthy words. Do you hear them? Even if you say “No, I close my ears as I go by” you still know they have been spoken, so even in your denial of them they find a way in.

I’m talking about swearwords. Oaths, as at some point they were called – which actually begs the question: when did ‘swear’ and ‘oath’ become so interchangeable? Anyway, that’s not the object of my rambling. What I’m curious about is what purpose swearing serves, and are there, should there be, any limits?

Swearing seems to serve several purposes.

  1. It is used in an attempt to offend. In a show of defiance against conventional society some people (particularly the young) resort to this in an attempt at self-determination. I am different, they shout, not realizing that they follow in their fathers’ footsteps! Nowadays, of course, many of the words our parents would never dream of uttering (or so we, as their offspring, would like to believe) are so commonplace they blend into the background and are almost invisible, so used have we become to hearing them.
  2. It is used as an adjunct to ignorance and prelude to (or attempt to avoid) violence. Not everyone has the glibness of tongue to be able to explain their point concisely, and often in that circumstance their primal tendencies come to the fore. Very often these tendencies lead to violence, and swearing is used in an effort to intimidate and belittle, reducing the target in stature. This can be seen on both sides of an ‘argument’, with the subject of an initial assault responding with violent words of their own in an effort to show they also have the ability to defend themselves.
  3. It is used in an attempt to shock, for example in humour. How many comedians have resorted to vulgarity in order to raise a laugh from their audience? This is normally because the comic has determined (rightly or wrongly) that the basal level of the audience is such that crudity is the quickest way to their approval. Is this not simply a defensive use of swearing, an effort to ingratiate the comedian with his public?
  4. It is used in the (extended) bedroom. Between partners there will always be those who are dominant and those who are submissive, albeit to varying degrees. The dominant will often use such words and require the submissive to accept them, and not infrequently the submissive party will expect and encourage this. Equally, the dominant may expect the submissive to use them, particularly with explicit self-reference.
  5. It is used in an attempt to declare self-important independence. This is often the case with children/youngsters in their endless efforts to stretch the boundaries imposed by their parents/guardians, to show how ‘grown up’ they are.  Don’t you find it sad that they equate adult maturity with the ability to swear? It is a variant of points 1 & 3 above, but this is of course not understood by the child perpetrator!

So when is it OK to swear? And do we see the written swear word in a different light to when it is spoken?

Personally I see nothing wrong in using any word within a verbal conversation between agreeing parties. This can apply to sexual encounters or general banter. If the audience, sexual or otherwise, is happy to be sworn at then the speaker is at liberty to use whatever words they with.

Equally the presence of a written oath is acceptable to me. It helps to explore character, or emphasise context. Such words can be viewed as merely tools of the trade.

But are there limits? Should there be constraints on when expletives are used? I believe there are, or should be limits. The purpose of swearing is generally antagonistic, or disharmonious at the very least. So where should the line be drawn?

For me there is the absolute limit of childhood. We all know that children will swear. It is very much a case of monkey-see, monkey-do, and that is where I draw my own personal line (which, I confess, I have stepped across on occasion). My argument is this: we set examples. In the fashion of Mrs. Do-as-you-would-be-done-by, each of us know how we ourselves want to be treated, and have a moral obligation (I hate the word, but it works) to follow that creed. Society’s ills are not resolvable by simple expedients such as outlawing the use of particular words or phrases, but if we can reduce the negativity our children are exposed to in daily life then we at least go some way towards that goal.

There is a counter-argument that by continued and public usage swearwords lose their vulgarity and power, becoming subsumed into conventional language, and to some extent that is true. But I believe also there is need within people to know that there is a dark place where bad things lurk, and ‘bad words’ are a little window though which we can look in relative safety. Anyway, if we just took away the swearwords we have, then new ones would simply appear in their place.

So lets keep our swearwords. Let’s keep them special and powerful by using them only infrequently, and with specific intent. But let’s also try to keep them in the adult sphere if we can. We’ll never succeed in wholly stopping their use by children, but that’s not an excuse for not caring.


March 24, 2007 - Posted by | General

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