The False Liberation of Swearing

Swearing is liberating. Cursing, using foul language, whatever you want to call it can make a person feel tougher, more powerful. A woman cursing says she could give a s**t about what other people think, she’s unaware or uncaring about what’s ladylike and what’s not. She can go to work, come home to kids, swear a blue streak and fry it up on a pan. Oh yeah. No f**king kidding. Swearing women think saying f**k a lot reduces their vulnerability to the universe. At least that’s what I always thought.

I personally love swearing but have tried to rein it in as I’ve gotten older and am trying to project a more refined image to the world. Since the new year, I’ve pretty much sworn off swearing in my blog, deciding that the continued use of f**k, mother**ker, and other favorites was filler for lazy writing. So instead of right away running to the profanity catalog, I’ve been actually trying to say in words what I mean. You know, like when your toddler is wailing about sometimes and you squat down next to her and say “Say it in words, honey.” It makes for a tougher writing experience but a better end product and it means that I don’t wince when I read my own work a month or year later.

Excessive swearing is like the radio emergency warning practice. Jolting but meaningless. How many times have I heard the phrase “I can’t stand this. This is all f**ked up.” I’ve heard it at the dinner table, on the front porch, at football games, at public hearings, in conferences with teachers, in meetings with colleagues, in the car on the way to a party. Seriously – how can a phrase be informative if it can be used in all those different environments? That phrase and the ubiquitous “This is so full of s**t” are lifetime favorites. I could probably go for a couple of weeks only saying hello, goodbye, and those two phrases.

I have had one person swear at me in my entire life. It was an older, very intimidating manager at the community action agency where I worked who was angry with me, a junior planner, for messing up some project or other. He stood at one end of a long hall and yelled at me – “F**k you! Why don’t you go fall in a f**king hole!” I was speechless, obviously. And oddly traumatized since I remember even what he was wearing and how he stood when he said it, now 30 years later. Which should have taught me – these words can really stay with a person.

I used to swear a lot at one of my kids when he was an older teenager. At the time, the single most irksome person on the planet, interaction with him for longer than 5 minutes always led to profanity; sometimes, I surprised myself at how intense I could get with my language. Looking back, I can see that I was so wanting in parenting skill for this particular child that I immediately slipped into giving voice to my inner toddler. Interestingly, though, he never swore back. Not once, which tells you something about composure and which one of us had it.

There are times when nothing but profanity will do. I occasionally think, daydreaming while I’m driving, what would be the last word I’d say if a semi-truck crossed the center line and was aiming for the front of my beautiful blue Thunderbird. Would it be f**k or s**t?

And you know, I just don’t know. I won’t know, I guess, until it happens.

10 Comments on “The False Liberation of Swearing

  1. Great thought provoking post Jan. I’ve always told my kids that swearing is lazy and for those who don’t know any better words but I’ve actually started swearing more in my old age than ever before and especially this past year, which has been particularly stressful and emotional. But generally and in every day situations I try and rein it in.

  2. I find that sometimes profanity is necessary. Like in situations when nothing seems to get through to the other person, it seems like only a swear word or two may really drive the point across. However, I hold back on using them in day to day conversations unless I’m really pissed off.

  3. Profanity has its place for certain – I’ve been told by friends in the US that it’s less common and less accepted than in the UK where it’s part of the rhythm and poetry of speech and even at its most profane can have a certain artistry to it. Loved the article – entertaining and thought provoking.

    • Thanks Thomas — Does ‘bloody’ qualify as profanity in the UK? And, I have to tell you, the more I resolve not to use profanity in my writing, the more occasions where it seems nothing else will do.

  4. Something has freed us, Jan. I seldom swore as a young person, but once I got into my forties, I discovered it was the lid to let off pressure. I found myself swearing for effect because I don’t look like a woman who’d swear.

    I am curtailing it however…it really drains one’s credibility. I’ve paid attention to how quickly respect slips away with an expletive – in my world.

    In a very old “beatnik” poetry book, I remember the line, “When you swear, I can’t hear what you are saying.”

    I think that is true.

    And similar to you, my mother used to say, “If only profane people knew how to be less lazy.”

    • It’s strange that as much as I used to swear – it still grates on the ears. I guess it’s that early training from mom. 🙂

  5. I swear all the time, but only at home, in front of people I know well. Usually I’m commenting on the abysmal state of our political system, things like that. I never swear on my blog, or in public (ok, maybe I slip now and again). But at home, it’s a release. I agree with you that it is a poor excuse for a language filler. I don’t like to read it unless it is important to a character’s depiction in a novel.

  6. How about “adios” or “haste la vista, baby” as you say farewell to the planet. Might as well go out in style, cuz!

  7. Hi Jan I’m new to your blog. You write a lot of common sense which I find is sadly lacking these days. Oh dear that does make me sound old. Swearing has crept into the dialogue of so many people young and old. I do swear more than I should but I am trying to rein it in because I remember my Mother was horrified if my sister and I swore when we were children 50 years ago. I am a grandmother to 6 girls and I don’t want them copying me. Profanity is debasing and a poor excuse as a language filler. OMG I am old and you know I’m okay with that 🙂

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