When are you most likely to swear? The answer, more than likely, is whenever you’re awake, at least if you’re David Mamet or Quentin Tarantino. In that case, another valid answer might be something like, when searching for just the right word to describe an ineffable aspect of the human condition. Yeah, I like to start off with a crowd pleaser right away. (Send your hate mail to [email protected]. Thanks.)
Before – William Hogarth, 1730
Kidding aside, those guys do have their merits, but I’d be a bigger fan if they used language in a more nuanced way. It is revealing though, to consider when different people are inclined to swear. Last time I remember swearing was a few days ago. I was talking to a friend, trying to be nonchalant about an audition I had just attended.
In that interaction I had the choice of acknowledging my insecurities or of telling a lie. I chose to lie, pretending that it doesn’t sting every time others tell me, in so many words, that they don’t care about what I have to offer. For whatever reason I chose to swear to help sell the lie. What about you? When do you tend to swear?
Before going further, let me mention that I usually have my blog topics planned out months in advance, and that’s also true for this one. It gives me the chance to massage my thoughts over time. In other words, I’m not writing about anyone I know in particular. I usually don’t do that unless you pay me.
Speaking of which, now is as good of a time as any to mention that you too can be featured on this illustrious blog. For just 47 moderately easy payments of $149.99, you too can be part of the revolution!
Photo credit: [email protected]
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OK, well … um … that cheese grater, although incredible, is not mine to give away. If you own it, and would like to partner with me on this, send me an email at [email protected]. And, when I say that operators are standing by, I mean me … all by myself, that is at least until this thing takes off and I can afford to outsource my call center. Until then, I’ll have my phone out, staring at it with affection and anticipation, patiently waiting for it to ring.
Just a few jokes, people. Take them or leave them. Please send your detailed concerns about my jokes to [email protected]. To the general populace though, I strongly advise you not to click on the email link. In fact the safest thing to do would be to avoid clicking on it all costs, for the consequences of doing otherwise might perturb your delicate sensibilities.
Anyway, back to the task at hand. My intention is not to get everyone to stop swearing in any context but merely to swear a little less. Please consider.
Berlin Street Scene – Ernest Ludwig Kirchner, 1913
What a revelation it was to read that even Enimem doesn’t allow swearing at home. This is a guy who has made a career out of being profane in lyrically innovative ways, not some clean-cut moral crusader. Even he believes that there is something about swearing that is not quite right for his most cherished ones. (In a sense, he’s trying to protect his own family from the corrosive content he sells the world to get rich.)
In his book The Mentor Leader, coach Tony Dungy talks about how he encouraged his teams to avoid swearing in the locker rooms. He frames this as another strategy to keep the team professional and focused on winning, and the guy’s won a Superbowl, so maybe there is some merit to his thoughts.
Odd how a few words, mostly four-letter ones in English, have become taboo, as if they have an inherently more corrosive quality. And yet they do. I spoke with a friend of mine and he agreed that adding swear words to an insult or emotional outburst intensifies the negative impact. Do your own experiments, and see if you reach similar conclusions.
The swear words in question usually debase their intended recipients, often in a sexual way. Some words like the f-word are considered swear words in any context, but others like “damn” and “hell” are context-dependent.
A metaphysical discussion about heaven and hell is acceptable in Sunday school, but saying “what the hell?” is considered slightly rude in certain settings. With that said, it is worth mentioning that even that phrase might carry a kernel of truth in the most unexpected moments. Perhaps there is something hellish about the event in question, like say your neighbor’s ghastly, exceedingly garish dinner party.
The Radical Reformer – George Cruikshank, 1819
Let’s talk semantics for a moment. To damn means to curse, as in to wish ill upon another. Old Testament prophets would ask God to damn the wicked. When we say “damn it” we are doing something similar, invoking a curse on the source of our frustration. Be careful about that: Our words have power, often more than what we intend.
When I was in college I witnessed an angry man swear at a college pay phone for a very long time. He wasn’t swearing at the person on the other end but at the phone itself, and it felt like minutes, not seconds, of swearing. Still, others used the phone without issue that day, so it didn’t seem to be broken, but when I tried to use it later in the week, it didn’t sound right.
It wasn’t so much that it sounded broken, but possessed. Puzzled, I recalled the man’s curses. It appeared that his curses had come true. How strange.
I can think of a few instances in my own life where I was so angry at perceived injustices done to me that I swore about the guilty ones throughout the day, sending out a near incessant stream of curses into the universe. I didn’t swear at anyone in person. Those were just my thoughts, my prayers of outrage.
Days later when my rage had been subdued, I was dismayed to discover that ill fates had indeed befallen my targets. Maybe those things were just coincidences. Maybe they weren’t, but they didn’t feel like coincidences.
That’s why I do what I can to wish blessings upon others in my life, even the ones who make my life difficult. Still, I have some room for improvement in this arena.
Sleeping Girl – Oskar Kokoschka, 1907
If swearing is really less than ideal though, why does it show up almost everywhere? Swear words have stampeded their way onto book titles, presidential speeches, and sermons, all respectable platforms once thought to be too dignified for such words. Sadly, even the three-year olds are swearing.
Since it is so prominent could it be that there is something beneficial about swearing? In the movie, the King’s Speech, swearing is used to help the King get past his stuttering problem. On a similar note, there are some scientific studies on swearing that suggest it helps us tolerate pain.
There’s also our contemporary inclination to show the truth in all its grittiness instead of making false pretenses about unearned decency. True that, but let’s not throw out the @#$@! baby with the @#$%@#@! bathwater.
Just because something is true does not mean it is wise to showcase. Terrorists have beheaded victims in shocking ways, but if we were to give their videos unedited air time, then we would be helping to spread the shock they intended to create. It’s sort of like that with swearing. Hence the @#%@#! and not the actual words. It allows us to discuss swearing, without the shock factor.
If you don’t agree that swearing has shock value, then go back and give another listen to the “Christian Bale rant” on YouTube. I had the link on here, but I took it out. Just listening to it again upset me, even though the swearing wasn’t directed at me. Sad that such abrasive language from affluent and powerful people has become essentially routine in our modern-day existence.
Self-Portrait in a Striped T-shirt – Henri Matisse, 1906
To put it in perspective, Christian Bale, the superstar, the Batman, the celebrity, is swearing at the Shane Hurlbut, the director of photography, the guy who gets a small fraction of a celebrity’s paycheck and shows up early on set to make sure that the high-priced actors look good on film. Mr. Hurlbut also maintains a helpful blog at http://www.hurlbutvisuals.com/blog where he gives free, invaluable advice to aspiring cinematographers. But hey, the guy probably had it coming, right?
Since we’re on the subject, I wonder if anyone has done a scientific study about the benefits of being sworn at by Christian Bale.
I know, he was having a bad day, and yes he’s a talented actor. Etc. I will even grant that he gave a masterful performance in The Fighter, a compelling sports film with anti-drug elements, but I could not bring myself to praise that film outside of this context.
It’s not the swearing in the movie that I mind so much, although there was a bit more than necessary to get the point across. It’s that both Christian Bale and director David O. Russell have a history of swearing abusively at people on set.
The Death Dance – Otto Wirshing, 1915
There are lots of movies and shows out there, and I’d rather talk about excellent work from people who treat others with consideration. But who knows? Maybe the swearing duo has been reformed. If they haven’t though, maybe we can, as a nice gesture, take up a collection for them.
Here’s the thing: Being a celebrity often involves frantic, stressful work, and with that kind of lifestyle, many of them don’t have time to learn about simple things like manners or common courtesy. Be that as it may, I’d like to believe that if we were to pay for people like Christian Bale and David O. Russell to go to charm school for a year, they would be touched by our generosity and change for the better.
OK, maybe that idea is a little out there, but think of how much better the world might be if more of the powerful and the popular ones had manners. You may say I’m dreamer, but I’m not the only one…
Rising Sun – Paul Klee, 1919
Anyway, so far I’ve only been a part of one show where the swearing had escalated to a toxic level, but it was enough to make me question why I was there. Not only that, but it made me wonder if it was time to rethink my career path. Do you really want your language to have that effect on others?
In our efforts to demolish the false pretenses of our parents’ generations, to be cool, we’ve forgotten that language isn’t there just to make us feel better about ourselves. It was once used to treat others with respect, with consideration. According to the historical record even George Washington swore, but only in his darkest moments. Most of the time, he was civil and restrained, the consummate statesman.
As Washington himself said, “It should be the highest ambition of every American to extend his views beyond himself, and to bear in mind that his conduct will not only affect himself, his country, and his immediate posterity; but that its influence may be co-extensive with the world”; It’s not the hippest idea out there to consider how our words and actions will affect others, but like a good Frank Sinatra song it has old-world appeal.
Strangers in the Night album cover, 1966
I’m sure you could do a cover of “Strangers in the Night” or “The Way You Look Tonight” with swearing, but the songs wouldn’t have that same classic feel. Clearly, Sinatra swore in private, but for his audience he brought only his best. Sinatra had class, at least when performing.
I’m not saying there shouldn’t be swear words in art. Through art we can explore both the good and the bad in our world. Instead of going cold turkey on the swearing, why not just try to do more with less? William Shakespeare, John Milton, and Victor Hugo rarely resorted to profanity. Kevin Smith uses it all the time. To whom would you prefer to be compared?
On a similar note, the film Rebel Without a Cause says so much more about the struggles of teenagers than most of today’s swear-powered teenage flicks combined. Sometimes swearing is the easy way out.
Girl in sunny garden with dog – August Macke, 1911
Next time you’re caught up in swear storm, ask yourself if that language makes it easier for others to be sincere, to treat other with respect. Again, can you convey more with less? Why not try to figure out what it is that makes you so angry, so prone to shock others, in the first place? I struggle too, but I value civil discourse enough to keep striving for improvement. Join me and together we can make our world a little more decent, one unspoken swear word at at time.