Sunday, October 2, 2011


Dr. Timothy Jay is a formal expert on cursing – yes, there really is such a thing. (See his webpage at .) He says that children are swearing earlier and more often than in previous decades: "By the time kids go to school now, they're saying all the words that we try to protect them from on television." He attributes this to the rise of casual cursing by adults – especially by parents.

This comes as no surprise. I'm old enough to remember when cusses were heard on construction sites, in army barracks, and in locker rooms, but hardly anywhere else. This wasn’t because we consciously restrained ourselves. We didn’t have to. Cussing just wasn’t part of our habitual speech in general company. It didn’t occur to us to do it, any more than it occurs to people today to give the finger in casual conversations. Everyday speech started to coarsen in the late 60s, and the trend has continued ever since. Nowadays the vocabularies of high school girls at the mall and of Marines on drill are essentially the same. OK, not quite: the Marines are politer. As a friend recently complained to me, apparently with no irony intended, “People have gotten so fucking crude, man.”

We now are at the point where cursing is so normal and expected that euphemisms actually have greater impact. A common term applicable to Oedipus, for example, is used, as often as not, neutrally or even affectionately, while the mild “jerk” is almost always an insult.

My own speaking habits remain rooted in the transitional 60s (my “groovies” are long gone, but the occasional “far out” still escapes my lips), but I don’t take offense at the presently prevalent profanity. In art-forms of a certain type, the profanity is an improvement. There is something both silly and distracting in 1950s war movies when, for example, some enraged GI at the front utters no harsher adjective participle than “ever-loving.” Post-60s films such as Scarface or The Big Lebowski sound ludicrous when shown on a free TV channel that replaces all the cusses with innocuous words. The original language of the scripts is appropriate to the characters. If Rapunzel ever gets similar dialogue in a Disney flick, I’ll object, but only because that would be as silly as the speech of the ever-lovin’ 1950s soldier.

My only real reservation about the modern reliance on cuss-words is that the words lack subtlety: they crowd out a richer lexicon with nuanced meanings. They thereby encourage simplistic thought, and we have quite enough of that already. You may recall in Orwell’s 1984, the super-state Oceania is in the process of simplifying English into Newspeak, “the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year.” The purpose: shrinking the dictionary shrinks the ability of individuals to think and to express themselves in complex (possibly treasonous) ways. Without any push from the state, we are doing it to ourselves.

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