Thursday, February 25, 2010

Why Not Swear?

No Swearing Please, We Are Humans

By John Taylor; 2010 Feb 25, Ayyam-i-Ha Day One, 166 BE

My wife and daughter went on a school trip to a drama festival in Port Dover yesterday. They enjoyed the theatre but complained vociferously this morning about the constant swearing of the high school students on the school bus ride there and back. It seems that for whatever reason profane speech has become ubiquitous in this "millennial generation."

Authority figures fight a losing battle just to keep oaths to a minimum in public fora. A few years ago Ron Speer and I gave a presentation in a high school religion class, and I witnessed myself how much time and energy the teacher had to use just to keep street talk out of the classroom. Profanity is no longer the province of outcasts standing around on their own time, it is bursting into public fora. There is no avoiding it.

It seems, therefore, that it would be useful for me to get back to basics and go over what profanity essentially is, its ill effects and what we might do to get rid of it. Surely we all have a duty to do our best to extirpate this evil habit forever, be it in the gutter or anywhere else.

So I will start an essay series today called, "No Swearing Please, We Are Humans," or, "Please Do Not Curse." There is an Arabic Proverb that says, "Joking is to speaking as salt to eating," so I will start off our anti-swear word discussion with a fairly savory dish.

Some Technical Reasons for Not Swearing

I am many things, but as a writer who makes a career of words, I cringe for purely technical reasons when I hear, for example, gross overuse of the "f" word, the universal expletive. Speech is an extremely powerful tool and over reliance on any one word cheapens language itself. If you use a word meant to give emphasis all the time, how will anybody know when you are especially upset? Consider this joke, which demonstrates the point:

"There was a golf match between an eminent Supreme Court Justice and an equally distinguished Virginia bishop. The bishop missed four straight short putts without saying a single word. The Justice watched him with growing amusement and remarked, `Bishop, that is the most profane silence I ever heard.'"

This is the paradox of restraint. The religious leader was refraining from expressing his anger at all, profanely or not, and this made his anger all the more apparent. It is the same thing with hunger. Hunger is the best condiment, they say, so a true gourmet does not go around stuffing his face, he eats little and appreciates a fine meal all the more. So often the most effective and powerful thing to say is nothing at all.

Again, I am making a technical point here, not a moral one.

I myself struggle not to swear, ever, for reasons that go far beyond the technical. But if we must swear, let us at least do it well. Consider the greatest master of the English language, William Shakespeare. Some of his characters swear, but as in all his speeches, they speak with a golden tongue beyond that of mere mortals. They swear with with the vim and force of a great imaginative poet. Entire computer programs have been written to generate Shakespearean oaths, of which there are hundreds.

And, if you go through these dense thickets of oaths and curses, not one is what we now would consider swearing. The "f" word is nowhere to be found (I just checked, just to be sure). Not that there are no euphemisms, along the lines of "wtf," now ubiquitous even in polite internet conversations. For example, there is "bodikin," or "Od's Bodikin," for "God's little Body." And "Cox my passion" for "God's Passion," And "By'rlakin," for "by our little Lady." But it is well to remember that some of this scurrilous speech is directed at those who depend upon swearing for rhetorical effect.

"A mad-cup ruffian and a swearing Jack, that thinks with oaths to face the matter out."

And clearly, Shakespeare understood what the judge saw in the silence of the bishop in the above anecdote, that few words, spoken well or spoken by the right person, often work far greater works than many,

"Few words, but, to effect, more than all yet..."

We will continue on this theme in future.


1 comment:

Weaner Pigs said...

As my mother used to say, "let your yea be yea and your nay be nay." I kind of wish I had not adopted swearing as a habit in high school. It's a hard one to break.