Melissa Mohr comes right out with it on the title page of her history of swearing, though the dust-jacket chastely presents the book as Holy Sh*t. Her argument is straightforward. It is that there are two main sources of bad language. One is the holy, which encompasses making oaths in the name of God or parts of his body, such as ‘by God’s wounds’, which later became ‘zounds’, and which George Farquhar in 1699 describes being comically gentrified into ‘zauns’. The other is the shit, which encompasses taboo bodily activities from buggery and beyond to the child’s favourite ‘poo’. In different periods, she argues, either the holy or the shit is the prime source of obscenity.
…She also speculates that future swear words will probably come from some of the milder taboo areas in modern life, such as death and disability. Should we be quite so cheery about swearing or its future? Swear words and oaths often gain their expletive force from the circumstances in which they are uttered. The badness of saying ‘whore’ or ‘God’s wounds’ or ‘bastard’ depends on who you say it to and why – as Queen Elizabeth I’s lord deputy in Ireland Sir John Perrot discovered when his secretary told on him for saying ‘God’s wounds, this it is to serve a base bastard pissing kitchen woman.’ Oaths can carry their potential to hurt or shock into normal conversation, which is why they can be used simply as intensifiers. Maybe we should just say ‘what the hell’ (or the expletive of our choice) and let this happen, because it does happen and will happen. But it isn’t simply prudish to reflect on the dangers of being foul. Many of us now liberally sprinkle our language with words that show we have a liberal attitude to sex and to bodily functions. But words grounded in racial difference (‘pikey’, ‘yid’, ‘paki’) are generally regarded as toxic. The offensive force of those words crucially depends on who says them to whom. Terms of racial and sexual abuse can and do work their way out of their nasty little corners despite the efforts of the law and social propriety to contain them. They are the most likely sources of future bad language.
But then right now I don’t “get” most forms of communication. There’s just so much of it. Everybody talking at once and all over each other; everyone on the planet typing words into their computers, for ever, like I’m doing now. I fail to see the point of roughly 98% of human communication at the moment, which indicates I need to stroll around somewhere quiet for a bit.
The words we constantly use and the narratives we write reinforce a drama of selfhood that we in the West complacently celebrate. There is also much consolation taken in the way in which writing and narrative can transform emotional pain into a form of entertainment, wise and poignant in its vision of our passage through the world, intense and thrilled by its own intensity. Narrative is so often the narrative of misery and of the passage through misery.
What silence and meditation leaves us wondering, after we stand up, unexpectedly refreshed and well-disposed after an hour of stillness and silence, is whether there isn’t something deeply perverse in this culture of ours, even in its greatest achievements in narrative and art. So much of what we read, even when it is great entertainment, is deeply unhelpful.
Being naturally inclined to relaxed daydreaming, I tend to feel much more substantial and whole as a result of making the effort to write regularly. It would be too easy otherwise to indifferently let my word balloons float away before I’d had a chance to tie them around my wrist and fully appreciate them. Perhaps writing is a form of self-medicating, helping me to focus without the help of doctor-prescribed speed. But sometimes I too wonder if I’m alert enough to the danger of becoming just one more babbling twit on the Internet whose rickety mental well-being depends on never shutting up, or if I’d recognize it happening to me in time to prevent it.
I consider myself politically progressive, but there are a few major sticking points that keep me perpetually at odds with my would-be allies. I hold in utter contempt anyone who would attempt to dictate to me a list of things I am forbidden to say, and it is generally more from the left than from other quarters that such dictation comes. I am part of that minority that continues to consider political correctness a real threat, and not a momentary excess of the early 1990s, when we heard all that reactionary huffing about how soon enough they’ll be making us say ‘vertically challenged’ instead of ‘short’ and so on. I speak not with Rush Limbaugh but with Vladimir Nabokov when I say that I am horrified by the limitation of free expression, by which I don’t mean the usual ‘expression of unpopular ideas’ beloved of ‘card-carrying members of the ACLU’, but rather the creative use of language where a Schillerian free play of the imagination is the only source of regulation. I believe the desire to regulate externally stems not just from a misunderstanding of how political progress is made, but also of how language functions.
…If my would-be political allies were being grown up about these things, they would understand that what they are really after is not something that can be attained by setting down, once and for all, the complete index nominum prohibitorum. Rather, it is a matter of cultivating virtues like tact and discretion: virtues for which there are no easy rules to be mastered in an a priori way, but which always depend upon the combination of a million different social cues.
“The desire to regulate externally” being, in my opinion, the heart of it. Most of the progressive linguistic police I’ve encountered are extremely distrustful of the anarchic, nebulous nature of language, as they are with anything that doesn’t fit neatly into their conceptual taxonomy. I’ve heard that tendency described variously as “rationalism” or “theorism”, but I’ve started thinking of such uptight people, progressive or reactionary, as Procrusteans. Above all their professed causes, they care most about the internal consistency of their worldview, the supposedly clear, strong connections between their axioms; they’re happy to stretch or amputate any inconvenient facts or realities as needed.
I am used to this kind of thing by now. There was this whole article written a few years back about how because I was running a site named Bookslut and interviewing male authors, I was a tool of the patriarchy. That’s fine. These types of things don’t really bother me. Mostly because I feel like if you are the type of person to write emails using words like “tool of the patriarchy” and “rape culture,” your goal is not to open a dialogue, it’s to shame me into correcting my behavior. It’s not likely to happen, unfortunately.
I should state up front that I hate the phrase “rape culture.” It’s not because I don’t think we have a culture where rape is normalized, where women are in danger, with television programs with pretty violated dead girls lovingly filmed for our viewing pleasure, whatever. I’m not stupid, I know how this works. But I also think that throwing around the word “rape culture” is a silencing tactic, that shuts down dialogue, that creates an atmosphere of animosity. I think it is stories, not slogans, that change things, that bring people around. And hearing out a person’s viewpoint, rather than scolding or telling them they are wrong, is the only way to find middle ground.
…So yeah. It annoys me when someone sends an email telling me that my language needs policing. It annoys me when someone writes to say, “I just today discovered your site and you are doing it wrong and hurting women in the process.” You are acting as a tyrant, not as a human being when you do that. I have that impulse, too, god knows. But if you’re getting hung up on words, these forbidden words that you yourself are changing into weapons, like slut or bitch or hysterical or whatever else I’ve been called out for using, you’re missing the story. And you’re missing the human being using the words. And I don’t answer email sent by tyrants.
Yesterday, while sitting in the parking lot at work, I saw a bird aggressively confronting his own reflection in a car’s side-view mirror. All ruffled feathers and widespread wings and “Come at me, bro!” attitude. With Crispin’s excellent post still fresh in my mind, it struck me as an amusingly apt symbol of so much social media dialogue — people catching a glimpse of their own projected fears or insecurities, reading malign intent into the shadows of vague or poorly-expressed ideas, squawking, pecking and accomplishing absolutely nothing.
There’s this former co-worker of mine, a devout Christian. Devout, as in, he and his wife were seriously talking about becoming New Monastics. When I met him, he was attending a conservative Christian college. Liberty University, in fact. Ideologically, we predictably disagree on some things — he’s not a right-wing religious nut, but he does seem to have some theocratic leanings where he thinks Christian beliefs should trump civil liberties, such as in cases involving abortion or voluntary euthanasia (that’s just an impression I’ve gotten, to be fair; I’ve never asked him about it flat-out). We argued a bit over whether Michael Behe is anything more than an intelligent design-promoting hack. He has a lot of left-wing political beliefs, though: he’s actually traveled to Palestine to protest Israeli actions and defend Palestinians from being attacked (hoping that the presence of Americans will deter any violence); he’s in favor of single-payer health care; he opposed both of our imperial adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan and any potential actions against Iran, but he’s also a former Navy SEAL and still has some of that rah-rah, go troops, U-S-A, U-S-A stuff going on. He got into a shouting match with John Hagee after a speech Hagee gave at Liberty. He voted for Bush twice, but still had enough of an intellectual conscience to change his mind about him and admit what a mistake it was. He voted for Obama after having supported Ron Paul in the primaries. He used to hate Michael Moore, now he loves him. He was thrilled when he saw me wearing a Noam Chomsky t-shirt one day, saying that he was his hero. He drives a gigantic monster truck that he converted to run entirely on vegetable oil, and he drives around in it blasting cheesy 80s synth-pop music like Wham! just to freak out the people who assume he’s a fellow redneck. Other fun discussions included everything from his love-bordering-on-worship of Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins to what he saw as a postmodern perspective in Scrubs as personified by the Janitor.
Most importantly, he’s just a genuinely nice guy. Intellectually curious and unfailingly polite (though I guess Hagee might argue otherwise), his willingness to consider new perspectives and change his mind accordingly made me realize how accustomed I’d gotten, especially on the Internet, to dealing with ideologues who traffic almost entirely in buzzwords and butthurt, who argue with slogans and snark, and who, by all appearances, care more about being right and being praised by their fellows for being right than actually changing any of the things they spend their Internet time raging against. Anil Dash’s perceptive Law of Fail comes to mind here.
Perhaps he’s more incoherent than truly iconoclastic; maybe he’s just never tried to figure out how all these passions and ideas can coexist in the same skull. Could be that if he ever attempts to be thoroughly rational and internally consistent in his beliefs, he might find himself rejecting his progressive leanings and becoming rigidly fundamentalist. Eh, I doubt it, though.
The rather pedestrian point I’m making is, had I met him on the Internet as a bullet list of beliefs and a set of tribal identity flash cards, I doubt I would have seen him as a friend. And I’m certainly not one to promote a ridiculous romantic Internet, fake, boo; real life, authentic, yay! perspective. I’m just saying what she’s saying: if you enjoy being mean and snarky to strangers online to give yourself a little sugar rush of superiority and gain a little status among the rest of the in-group, knock yourself out. But if you honestly want to “make a difference” and change people’s minds, you might want to engage with them in a more personable way. You might even thereby decide that the fate of all good things in the world doesn’t actually hinge on whether you win an argument or bully someone into acquiescence.
On Friday we posted an excerpt from an interview in which linguist Noam Chomsky (something of a political celebrity himself) excoriates Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, along with Lacan’s superstar disciple, Slovenian theorist Slavoj Žižek, for using intentionally obscure and inflated language to pull the wool over their admirers’ eyes and make trivial “theories” seem profound. He calls Lacan a “total charlatan.”
Yep. As the pop star Neecha sang, “Those who know they are profound strive for clarity; those who would like to appear profound to the crowd strive for obscurity.” And there was also the philosophy collective, Depeche Mode, whose seminal paper on the political use of language, “Words Are Very Unnecessary: They Can Only Do Harm,” is still influential today.
People like Karen Armstrong have said that religious fundamentalism is a wholly modern movement, not a premodern one, born as a result of feeling threatened by the advance of science and technology. In essence, once fundamentalists accepted the challenge to prove the literal truth of their mythic stories, rather than be content with them as allegories, they stepped onto a playing field they were woefully unprepared for. I recently read someone — I forget who — saying something similar about postmodernism and critical theory. Much of modern science is extremely specialized and incomprehensible to a lay reader. So, in a misguided attempt to compete with science and retain the humanities’ relevance, postmodernism tried to incorporate similar jargon and specialization. But as Chomsky has said before on this topic, the difference is that if he wants to get a layman’s understanding of the latest theories in physics, he can find someone capable of explaining it to him on a level he can understand. With theory, the bafflegab is the point, and it can’t be stripped away without leaving banality standing there, naked and embarrassed.
Casanova Frankenstein: It’s so easy to get the best of people when they care about each other. Which is why evil will always have the edge. You good guys are always so bound by the rules.
Swearing, while not its only function, has a lot to do with offending people. Swearing is a necessary social sanction that does a lot of good in the world. There will always be people in this world that deserve to be told off. (Like my neighbor for example.) But in the process of telling each other where to shove it, we also reaffirm and establish who in the world is desirable and who is unwanted. So if I call you dumb, stupid, lame, gay, retarded, or even a girl, I’m not only saying that women, non-cis gendered people, or the differently abled are inherently bad, I’m also invoking all of the power of ableism, homophobia, and patriarchy to make you feel bad. Too many curse words strengthen the kind of social structures that we should be dismantling. I want to quickly and easily compare people to the parts of society that I find gross and unseemly. I want words that compare people to those with ill begotten wealth or obscene power but, so far, calling someone the President of the United States of America doesn’t have the sticking power it should.
Lord, what a div.
The shift in taboos away from sacrilege and gross-out topics toward more personal and, well, flat-out mean epithets appears to be a move in the right direction. The increasingly offensive nature of these words—and the visceral, emotional responses they trigger within us when spoken or heard—just might amount to a signifier of social progress. “There’s got to be something that people take seriously” and see as out of bounds these days, says Allan. “And right now, it’s human frailties.”
Progress? More like the fickle nature of fashion, aimlessly wandering around in circles. There will always be people who want to shock and push boundaries for the sake of doing it, and there will always be uptight prigs who want to mother-hen everyone else into line with their ideals. The battleground will change, yet the battle will remain the same. In the meantime, our overly-neurotic friend above should relax: calling someone a “fucking moron” does not increase, in some quantifiable way, the likelihood that the U.S. will re-introduce eugenics legislation to overwhelming public approval. The epithet does not seep into the cultural groundwater to accumulate with other social toxins, thus contaminating us all just that little bit more with a desire to sterilize the unfit. Language expresses so much more than simple binary logical propositions.
1 Going forward
Top of many people’s hate list is this now-venerable way of saying “from now on” or “in future”. It has the rhetorical virtue of wiping clean the slate of the past (perhaps because “mistakes were made”), and implying a kind of thrustingly strategic progress, even though none is likely to be made as long as the working day is made up of funereal meetings where people say things like “going forward”.
Despite my recent fatwa, I generally accept that language is plastic, ad-hoc and ever-evolving, and so refrain from getting too exercised over deviations from some supposed True Standard of writing or speech. And even when doing copywriting, where word count is king and content is an afterthought, I can have a sense of wry humor about the accepted presence of so much excess, empty verbiage. But Broca’s area has its reasons of which reason knows nothing, and holy mother of fuck, the constant use of this particular phrase makes me want to punch the speaker repeatedly in the larynx until they can only ever utter a rasping squawk for the rest of their days, or fantasize about a hidden mousetrap mechanism in their keyboards being triggered and crushing their fingers.
Texting has long been bemoaned as the downfall of the written word, “penmanship for illiterates,” as one critic called it. To which the proper response is LOL. Texting properly isn’t writing at all — it’s actually more akin to spoken language. And it’s a “spoken” language that is getting richer and more complex by the year.
…In the old days, we didn’t much write like talking because there was no mechanism to reproduce the speed of conversation. But texting and instant messaging do — and a revolution has begun. It involves the brute mechanics of writing, but in its economy, spontaneity and even vulgarity, texting is actually a new kind of talking. There is a virtual cult of concision and little interest in capitalization or punctuation. The argument that texting is “poor writing” is analogous, then, to one that the Rolling Stones is “bad music” because it doesn’t use violas. Texting is developing its own kind of grammar and conventions.
Currently, in the panopticon of the social web, not maintaining a presence on social networking sites is liable to earn you anything from for-your-own-good finger-wagging to accusations of psychopathy. I have a few friends who occasionally pester me to communicate with them through Facebook or LinkedIn. But the basic truth of McWhorter’s observation raises a new possibility — now, I can explain my refusal to participate in everything from texting to tweeting as having taken a vow of silence, the spiritual overtones of which should hopefully inspire a respectful (blessed) silence from those otherwise incapable of shutting the hell up.
David Simon wrote a post recently:
The Guardian, which I hear used to be an actual newspaper, reprinted it, but not before HuffPosting up the title a bit:
I am in favor of the death penalty for adults who use the word “fail” as a noun.
But texts, blogs, emails and Facebook posts are infecting other kinds of writing, and mostly for the good. They are making journalism, books and business communications more conversational.
Social media offer a pretty good model for how to write. First, the writers mostly keep it short. People on Twitter often omit “I”, “the” and “a”, which are usually wastes of space anyway. Vocabulary tends to be casual: bloggers say “but” instead of “however”. They don’t claim a false omniscience, but proclaim their subjectivity. And the writing is usually unpolished, barely edited. That’s a great strength.
…George Orwell in 1944 lamented the divide between wordy, stilted written English, and much livelier speech. “Spoken English is full of slang,” he wrote, “it is abbreviated wherever possible, and people of all social classes treat its grammar and syntax in a slovenly way.” His ideal was writing that sounded like speech. We’re getting there at last.
That article from Wired that I linked to last week said something similar, that texting is the most efficient form of communication ever invented. Well, I know this is a heretical thing to say to a culture obsessed with business and technology, but have you ever considered the possibility that efficiency isn’t the fucking be-all, end-all of human activity? That not everything is automatically improved by making it faster and simpler? That dancing is more than simply a convoluted means of getting from one point on the floor to another? That music is more than just an easy way to light up the nucleus accumbens? That writing is more than a delivery system for communicating facts? Nietzsche, whose prose style I greedily wish I could better approximate, explained to an acquaintance why some things deserved to be expressed in a style other than the vernacular:
When one writes a book and thus steps into the public light, that is always a significant act deserving of a certain solemnity, so that one has to put aside everyday language. You have a good example in Catholicism, toward which, as you perhaps know, I am not exactly friendly, but this does not prevent me from recognizing the great worldly wisdom with which Rome has been conducting its business over the ages. Why does Rome still have the Mass read in Latin? To give the solemn act, veiled in mystery, a special solemnity even externally. But that must not be at the expense of clarity or intelligibility. If thoughts were thereby hidden, if the real meaning became hard to understand, that would of course be false, that would no longer be solemn, that would be foolish.
That’s always resonated with me. Solemnity without sacrificing clarity or intelligibility. I agree with the perception of Nietzsche as a philosopher who wrote like a poet. His ideas were earthy enough, but they were so often presented in such unexpected, vivid images! In fact, if there’s one thing that particularly annoys me about my own writing, it’s that it’s too often plain, straightforward and unadorned. I’m not saying I want to become Henry James or James Joyce, but I would like to aim higher than colloquial standards.