The first thing anyone wants to know when they learn a language is usually the bad words. It is important if you want to understand people at their worst. For example, the refs for the World Cup match between England and the USofA did their part to brush up on how the players would be taunting each other. But as practical as learning the swear words has become, we still have our limits as to when we can use them. It’s just that those limits are fading fast.
One of my favorite swear words is declaring that something “sucks.” I like this word because the use of it was one of the few times that my Mom ever yelled at me. The lecture has stuck pretty hard. Despite my wincing, this particular word is used very commonly these days, both in person and on broadcast shows. We have yet to cross the line to the slightly coarser “blows” as a standard, however, but this is far from the only example of a swear word making it to common use.
There is billboard visible from I-94 just about the line between Minneapolis and Saint Paul declaring that someone has been “pissing off the competition” for some period of time. It wasn’t that long ago that you would never see this in print looming over an interstate. But there it is. Should we take all this as a sign of a seriously degrading culture that is going straight to Aitch-Eee-double-hockey-sticks?
I’ve never understood why some words are off limits, but being off limits has a particular enticement that makes them very plump and useful. Kurt Vonnegut taught that obscenities should be used as a kind of punctuation, a way to highlight phrases that you wanted to stick in someone’s head. That’s a useful tool, when done right. If we really have to have words that are used sparingly we can at least put them to good use.
Yet more and more, these words have lost their effectiveness through daily use. The one place that quaintly refuses certain words is in broadcasting, a standard I’ve decided I should use for this particular blog. It’s why I had to resort to the word (CowPuckey) recently. This keeps the harsh language in reserve and allows me to keep a very general audience without offending anyone. Besides, (CowPuckey) is funny. But aren’t there people, as a director of the BBC once said, one should like to offend?
I think the answer is that, no, it’s probably best to keep language as free of these words as possible. They have their uses and I think it’s best to keep them in reserve for maximum effect. I can accept the increasing use of “sucks” as a mild kind of swear word, a word for more daily use, because it reserves the harsher ones for when you really mean it. The English famously have a broad range of swear words in different grades, starting from “bloody” and going to “sod” and into a few words I’d rather not say. American English appears to be developing a rich vocabulary of these words, and it’s probably all for the best.
It might make things a bit harder for the foreigners who have to brush up on our latest ways of offending each other, but that’s OK. We don’t want to let them in on all of our secrets, do we?