Saturday, June 11, 2016

About Swearing

Imagine my surprise while reading a book on the life of a New Yorker Magazine proofreader to come across a chapter titled:

"Chapter 9. F*ck This Sh*t” (Actual title, not censored)
(From: Mary Norris. Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.)
It was a whole chapter on profanity. Here's the opening paragraph (warning: not censored)
HAS THE CASUAL USE OF profanity in English reached a high tide? That’s a rhetorical question, but I’m going to answer it anyway: Fuck yeah.
(From: Mary Norris. Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.)
One of the great difficulties of
a) growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist Church;
b) working in radio and
c) having a 30-year career as a preacher
is that the ability to swear in many places is frowned upon. I remember a book that I got at a Baptist Revival in the early-60s that frowned (understatement) on swearing. They went so far as to say that even use of the soft words (darn, heck, and shoot, for example) was forbidden because everyone knew that they really meant something else. To use even these was part of the highway to Hell. (Capitalized, therefore indicating a place and not a swear word.)

This resulted in the fear of swearing- and when hearing a swear word- feeling ashamed for having heard it. I would take a certain guilty pleasure in church when a hymn used the word Hell. Saying a forbidden word, in church, was perhaps my entry into the life of degradation Harold Hill warned of in River City's pool hall.

I managed to stay mostly pure during my first year at college. I probably picked up an occasional damn or hell, but that was about it. Then came my real slide into damnation. During the summer between my freshman and sophomore years I worked in a local factory. The high school locker rooms were mild in comparison. I heard words in combinations I had never thought would make any sense. Like they say, when in Rome...

It was actually liberating! I discovered the joy of letting words fly. I didn't get to the level of sophistication of a couple of my co-workers who would pepper every sentence with one of the bigger words, like the two Mary Norris censored in her chapter title. I was downhill slip-sliding away!

It was no time at all until my favorite word was "Shit." (Sidenote: I still have problems writing that as my own word, not that of author Norris! Some shame dies hard.) This was, of course, the late 60s when we had that wonderful, gross as hell phrase to imagine:
Get your shit together!
(Hey, this is kind of fun.)

I know what Mary Norris means when she talks about going with friends
to see the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid over and over, and never failed to laugh at the scene when Robert Redford admits to Paul Newman that he can’t swim, but, to escape their trackers, he jumps off the cliff into the river anyway, bellowing “SHHHHHIIIIIIIIITTTT” on the way down.”
(From: Mary Norris. Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.)
I could ramble on about this, of course. I don't have any embarrassing stories that I remember. Perhaps the most difficult time was right after I was discharged from my alcohol treatment program. As one might expect in that environment the language is not what I normally heard on Sunday morning at church. Sometime in the first few months sober my wife and I were relaxing with our best friends (who were church members) and some topic or another came up. Without a moment's hesitation Mary Norris's chapter title came out.

Okay. Maybe I was a little embarrassed at that moment. But, as I quickly added,
Now you see why I don't ad lib anything in worship.
So, what's the purpose of this essay? Well, I'm not sure. Maybe the young fundamentalist ghost is getting some prurient interest in doing something "obscene" in public? Maybe the retired pastor is saying that he knows these words? Maybe I just wanted to say that these words, used in the right place and time have an important place in our language. I remember reading a few years ago that letting go with a good string of profanities when you hit your thumb with a hammer actually reduces the amount and length of the pain.

I didn't want to ask how they ethically studied that.

And of course, it's what came to mind and felt like fun to share.

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