Grr.  After my day I feel more like cussing than writing this blog, but I’ll give it a shot.

I have a few rules about cussing:

  1. No defamatory cussing unless it is obviously in a teasing manner.
  2. Cuss in a socially appropriate manner.  (e.g. not on this blog or in court, but more hanging out with, um, dockworkers)
  3. No using words I don’t understand. (cuts down on my swearing in Yiddish.  But not completley.)
  4. No blasphemy.

So if adhering to those, I’ve got no problems cursing.  Not that I’m perfect.  I break my own rules from time to time.

Hmm, where to go next.

In general, I like cursing.  Not that I enjoy hearing it from others who break my rules, but I don’t enforce them on others either.  I think that cuss words serve a useful purpose in language.  They are among the most impactful exclamations and interjections.  While rarely the most precise language to use, they are often an effective shorthand for expressing emotion. Finally in the same vein that all men find farts funny, cursing is often humourous as it breaks societal taboos.

I think you can also play junior cultural anthropologist by listening to how people talk.  While it isn’t fair to draw conclusions based on cussing alone, it is an interesting part of the picture.

There is such a broad range of different ways people cuss.  From those who won’t even use a non-cuss euphemism ever (like darn!) to those who use the F-word less as an interjection than commas.  It just seems interesting to me.

When I was just a little kid, I decided to make a conscious decision not to cuss until I felt I was old enough and knew what I was saying.  When I finally got around to swearing at all in grade four (it might have been five) I was the last person in my class to do so.  Funny, that seems like I was so young now, but every kid I knew started younger than I.

There were two incidents I remember later on in grade school.  The first where I used “damn” in the hallway and got in trouble from the science teacher (M. Laurin) for cussing.  My rejoinder was that it couldn’t have been a curse because my parents used it at home (my parents didn’t develop truly foul mouths until I was older).  I lost that argument.

The other time I had started to use the word dildo in teasing people.  “You’re a dildo!  Dildo-head!, etc”  I didn’t actually know what it meant.  That is until I called my little brother a dildo at the dinner table and had my error explained to me and the word defined over servings of potatoes.

Both incidents really enforced my resolve to not use words unless I knew what they actually meant.  Or at least to think before I spoke.

I also often use nonsense words or humourous euphemisms instead of actually curses.  Gunky, Jiminy Cricket,  groovy, nifty, hoser, son-of-a-gun, etc.  I’ve gotta say that even more than curse words I love these nonsense words.  I feel I get to achieve the same effect as actually cursing while standing out as somewhat different and unique and quirky myself.

Still, still, if you drop a hammer on your toe a real curse is called for.

Since I tend to use such nonsense words more than actual cussing, I often seem to surprise folks when I do really cuss.

Obeying my little rules and being “true” to my own sensibilities is sometimes a tricky row to hoe.  But I don’t think any harm can come from actually trying to pay attention to the words that come out of my mouth.

Now if I could only to the same thing with the thoughts those words express…



7 thoughts on “Cussing

  1. Suellen says:

    Those nonsense words have really become your trademark. I have actually tried to emulate it in the sense that when something goes pear shaped, I’m now in the habit of saying ‘Sugar’ instead of something else. Dagnabbit is another personal favorite.

  2. Dano says:

    (Warning: in discussing curse words, I may list them or use them in examples. Much in the way I feel free to discuss murder and write the word murder but would never actually commit a murder, I feel that it is fine to use a word in the discussion of that word. If that bothers you then read with caution.)

    My first real employment was in construction. Concrete, actually, so I have a more immersive experience in foul language. This, unfortunately, means that I have a deep seated tendancy to revert to jobsite-ese at unexpected times. I really have to be conciously aware of my language, lest I get out of control.

    I thought it might be interesting to examine this from an ethical framework. I’m not going anywhere, just putting it out there into the light and seeing what I see. This is about cursing not morality, so the framework I use will be explained but I’m not particularily interested in discussing the ins and outs and what-have-yous of the framework itself.

    (If there are any moral relativists in the crowd . . . I’m just going to ignore the intellectually bankrupt position of moral relativism and any complication is might add to the analysis. Instead, I am going to use a more traditional model of ethical philosophy.)

    So . . . when examining the morality of human acts we need to be concerned about three specific aspects. Those aspects are, the object, the intent, and finally the circumstance. The object, is the act, in and of itself. Essentially, what you did. The intent is why you did it, what was your goal. The circumstance is a bit broader, it includes both the situation you are in, as well as the consequences.

    Briefly, when examining the object, we are looking to the nature of the act itself. There are some things that are always and everyway wrong just from their nature. Sit folks down around a table and you can quickly make a list of easily identifiable things that are like this: murder, adultery, perjury etc. There might be some contraversial ones but you would be surprised on the broad level of agreement found here.

    The second criteria is intent. Intent seems simple enough but there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, a bad intent can undermine a good object, but a good intention does not redeem an evil object. Sort of a, “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions”, kind of thing. Second, we must always look closely to find the primary intent. A lot of the time we hide our intents behind some secondary intent that is our ultimate goal in the long run but not our immediate goal. A thief might say his goal was to buy a wheelchair for a poor disabled person, but in reality the primary intent was to take money from the cash register that isn’t his. The key is often that the intent should relate back to the object in a direct fashion.

    The third thing is circumstance. Circumstance cannot change the fundamental character of an act but it can heighten or lessen it. For the biblically inclined, think about the woman giving her two copper coins worth a penny in Mk 12 (don’t ask me the verse I’m Catholic.) It was good of everyone to give to the treasury, but it was especially praiseworthy of the woman who had almost nothing. We can extend this to consequences as well. Giving a 5spot to a homeless person is good. Yet, we can see that there is a difference if, on the one hand, he goes and buys a beer, or on the other hand, that was the last couple of dollars he needed to get a bus ticket to Red Deer where his brother has a job lined up for him.

    Now, finally onto cussing. Let us start with the object. I think Todd nailed it pretty clearly, we can divide cursing into two sets of objects: blaspheming and other swears. Blaspheming, clearly, a disordered object (this is why I never swear in French). All other swears are just words, they only have power in our language because we give them power. Try this, next time you do something that might make you curse, yell out, “coitus”. Watch everyone turn and laugh. Why is fuck crude and coitus a joke, they mean the same thing? They are just words. The only difference is that we assign a vulgarity to one and not the other. I would say the object for these other swears is not intrinsically disordered (I could be swayed though).

    The discussion of the power we assign words brings us nicely to intent. Often our intent in swearing is simply to be crude or vulgar, I would argue this is a bad intent. On the other hand there are plenty of other intents to cussing. You can cuss to let off steam, as when you stub your toe. Few things help with a stubbed toe like a well evoked cuss. Is this a negative intent? I’m not sure. Does it only let off steam becasue it is vulgar or would a well spit out phrase work? You might swear as an exclamation to indicate intense emotion. This I think might be the most harmless of intents. On the flip side, any cursing that intends to hurt or insult another person is deeply harmful. “You are a fucking bastard,” not nice at all. Yet, this really has nothing to do with the swear itself, this is pure intent. For example: I’m going to fuck you up. Is this any more vile than: I’m ging to beat you down, rip out your testicles, and hang them from my ears so that I can listen to the smack together as I rape your wife and mother? The second has no swears per se but shares the same intent and I dare say is a very dark and vile statement.

    A last note on intent. Where do we put swears that are used out of habit. Take the construction worker who uses the f-word as if it we the only punctuation mark, adverb, and adjective in existance? What is his intent? Does he even have an intent. I know plenty of guys who don’t even realise that they are using the f-word.

    Our third issue in the ethical examination is circumstance. I think there is probably the widest range of application here. There are a huge number of situational issues that make swearing appropriate or inappropriate. I would never swear in church, but there are plenty of priests that I would have no problem doing some mild swearing around when just sitting around shooting the breeze. Gaming with the guys, no prob. Gaming with the wife . . . more reluctance. Also, there are some consequential realities to look at. Some folks are very sensitive to swearing, others not. I have been in situations where I swore and just shocked some of the listeners. I felt bad. There is a certain level of sensitivity that is required here. Now, I feel that there are probably far too many variables to go deeply into circumstance so I will just have to leave it here.

    On a completely new bent . . . I too, use fake swears and nonsense words a lot. Perhaps, my most iconic one is, “Hogan’s Goat!” as an exclamation of surprise, joy, wonder or even anger. Any one who knows me has heard me say that. I tend to use, “filth foul foul filth foul,” when I’m climbing and frustrated at a move or difficult route. My favorite one syllable is, Piss. I guess it could be argued that is rather along the lines of shit and may be an equivalent level of swear.

    Just for interest, have you ever noticed, that in English most swears and insults are infact insulting mothers while in French they are generally insulting the Church. Just saying.

    Finally, it seems there has been a shift in the English language and its use of swears. Very recently, cunt has replaced fuck at the crudest and most vulgar word in the language. My guess is that the f-word has lost its power through over use.

    • Ooh – I am more excited about your response than my initial post. Will respond tomorrow when I have more time.

    • David Silvestri says:

      Gah!!! it’s longer than the blog…


    • [Like Dan, I use several curse words during this discourse.]

      So I might split my responses into your categories of object, intent and consequence. But first:

      Two points I either didn’t make or didn’t make well.

      My impetus for writing the blog was Dave mentioning that his eldest doesn’t call someone “stupid” due to a nice upbringing. That reminded me of how early swearing became ubiquitous on the playground. I was very proud of myself for not swearing for so long. Now it seems like I started cussing early too.

      My other point was an appreciation for cuss words as part of language. English is a nifty language because it sucks at precision. Most of its words have overloaded semantics. Swear words are a great example of this because they rarely are ever used in a fashion that aligns with their literal definition. When most people say, “damn you” they don’t literally mean, “I curse your soul black. May you find no forgiveness on earth or in heaven, May you suffer unending torment in hell.”

      For real insults the Bard is far more pithy using words rather than swears (although he will do both).

      But we can use cuss words for rhythm, alliteration, and emphasis. While it might be offensive there can be a certain poetry to hearing them spoken. I’m certain I used to overuse dildo simply because the word is a trochee and fun to say.

      OK, object.

      I think the most interesting part of your discourse on object was an assumption we both made and took for granted, but would likely be the most argued of our basis. That being that there is a definite split between blasphemous curses and non-blasphemous ones. The assumption could be argued on a number of grounds:

      • That the assumption is based solely on the religious commandment and has no bearing on people who do not share our (or similar) faith.
      • That words are realist/nominalist or conceptual. A nominalist would argue that the word has no innate reialty concept, so its ethical use would need to be defined solely on its intent and circumstance. A swear combined with another act who gain an object in the act.
      • That when used swears are rarely taken for an literal meaning. I illustrated that with “damn” above. But it can hold with “bastard” too. When used in a defamatory manner it generally means that the person so referred is a jerk, but the implication that that is the case because of a poor upbringing due to being an orphan or raised without a father is not even really implied. The fact that the curse “Jesus Christ” is used by completely atheist people or those who beleive in a different religion also is an example of this. If used in such a manner do they constitute a blasphemous use?

      I think you’d win any argument against a person trying those arguments, but it might take a long time agreeing on common ground first.

      Another point relating to object is that all swears are intrinsically wrong in the same way murder is wrong. (Although murder is an interesting word as I think it combines both object and intent into its meaning.) Curse words enter the lexicon of speech as words which are intended to offend social mores. They don’t have a grandiose purpose when created other than offend. They main gain something in usage over time, but their origin seems to make them an ethically corrupt object regardless of future use. That is why culturally the swears in English are different than French – different taboos are being invoked when created. It also explains why the word fuck has lost some of its impact due to commonality, but the c-word or the n-word are ones I won’t even use in this discourse. Taboos can change. The worst swears in a society are those that violate a current taboo.

      If that is the case, then despite any wrangling on my part I am arguing from a bankrupt position…

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