Last week, a friend sent me a link to a website mapping America’s use of swear words. According to the website, Oregonians curse less than much of the country. I’m not going to write the words here, you know them all, but if you want to tickle your brains, here are their first letters.
H D D B A B C C D F F F G M P S S W
I’ve been known to let colorful words fly in my life, but it wasn’t always so. When my family moved to New York City in 1963 I was eight, and I did not know curse words. That didn’t last long, as survival and acceptance in NYC demanded I learn the words of the streets. Soon enough, I cursed with the best of them, much to the chagrin of polite relatives who observed how the city had changed me.
In high school I decided to purge swear words from my speech. It took me a few months, but I completely cleaned up my speech. This later helped me when I back-talked a teacher and was expelled from the class three weeks before graduation. Standing before the dean for discipline, I asked why I was kicked out. He said, “Because you swore in class.” Had he said because you are a pain in your teacher’s neck, or that I was stupid by being a class clown who took it over the edge, I would have taken my punishment with no resistance, but I had not sworn in two years and I protested, “Sir, one thing I know for certain is that I did not swear in class.” Despite that truth, my banishment stood.
Living in the world, and especially being a writer, it is important to know your audience. There are times to clean it up, and other times when you can let fly. Also, situations like when you hit your thumb with a hammer, screaming golly gee whiz just doesn’t cut it. And, I worked in the worlds of commercial fishing, construction, and played sports – where swear words are common. Though, when I coached, I tried (not always successfully) limiting myself to the occasional “dang.”
I’m a “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”-kind of guy, and swearing doesn’t bother me much. Some of the most imaginative musical language is well-uttered chains of curse words, and I admire the ability to cuss up a blue streak or curse like a sailor. I recoil at the priggish term “potty mouth,” a polite way of heaping scorn on someone who swears. I’ve lived in and learned five other languages and learning curse words helped with that.
“Never use harsh or rude language. Foul language you can use; foul language doesn’t hurt. Foul language is forgivable (though it is bad). But rude language cannot be forgiven. Harbhajan Singh Yogi
I avoid using words that offend others. It’s not about censorship, or caving into “political correctness,” but it is about kindness and respect. I’m committed to displace harmful language of the past. I believe in my heart of hearts that most of us endeavor to be respectful and it is only misplaced anger or fear that gets the better of us.
Yesterday’s vulgarity often becomes today’s norm. The late comedian George Carlin made famous a comedy routine, The Seven Words You Can’t Use On Television. Carlin was tuned into language, and unleashed his comedic wrath on those seeking to manipulate others by controlling it. He went so far as to say that one of the words sounded like a breakfast snack.
Carlin was inspired by the pioneering comedian Lenny Bruce, who was jailed repeatedly in the early 1960s for using words the courts of the time deemed “appealing to prurient interest.” That those words were spoken to adults paying to hear them did not sway the courts. And, today, 1960s’ Lenny Bruce routines would feel as sweet as a Disney film. Eventually, though it was too late, for Bruce who was hounded by authorities and died from a drug overdose. The world came around and today comedians freely use language filled with curses and targeting the “prurient interest” condemned by courts 60 years ago.
How, who, and when we use language is a fickle thing, and I’m not sure what it means that Oregonians curse less than other places in the country. I hope it means we aspire to a higher level of politeness, and golly gee whiz, heck, for fudge sakes and Jiminy Christmas, we certainly should be dang proud of that.
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