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Correcting Your Behavior Since 2017

Proper Profanity

Today, the Curmudgeon has a message for you on the subject of profanity—you know: cursing, cussing, swearing, so-called “bad” language—the kind that, in the old days, prompted parents to wash their children's mouths out with soap. Now, I’m betting you’re all thinking I’m going to tell you that true ladies and gentlemen never curse. Not at all. Not by a long shot.

The assertion that cursing is inherently improper is (pardon my language) bullshit. Language is a fantastic, flexible, nuanced, complex communication toolkit, and the Curmudgeon considers profanity to be a perfectly valuable tool in that kit. Used well, it can be most effective. Indeed, there are times when nothing but profanity will do, when a non-profane word simply wouldn’t be the right choice.

So, well-placed curse words should be part of every intelligent person's linguistic arsenal. The key, however, is in using this kind of language artfully and selectively—for maximum impact—rather than squandering these fine words on situations in which they aren't merited. Fret not, the Curmudgeon is here to enlighten you.

There was a time, believe it or not, when calling a woman a “bitch” was considered extreme—and I mean truly extreme. It was a last resort, a word reserved for only the lowest of the low or the cruelest of the cruel. And since it literally means “a female dog,” “bitch” was only uttered with intention to hurt . . . and it did. Even society’s rejects—prostitutes, beggars, criminals—would be deeply insulted at being referred to as bitches. At least "whore" and "thief" were job descriptions. "Bitch" was just a flat-out insult. Today, girls (and even some boys) call each other "bitch" by way of greeting. I’ve heard women brag about being bitches. There was even a very popular song called “Bitch,” a girl-power-type rock anthem which included the lyric, “I am not ashamed” (which was disappointing news indeed). And in some sections of society, the word has become simply an alternative way of saying “person.” How dull.

And here’s the problem with that. It isn’t that the word is offensive. It’s that it isn’t offensive enough. Years of casual use have robbed "bitch" of her bite.

The same is so for other formerly incendiary words. You may have encountered the neighborhood thugs who describe everyone as “This muh’fucka over here . . . I gotta go see this muh’fucka . . . call me later, muh’fucka . . . ” There’s no anger in this type of usage. It’s not intended as a put-down. It’s now just a substitute for the word “guy.” It's been dulled into impotence. So . . . what term can we use when we’re really, really mad at a muh’fucka? What will we call that person? A . . . jerk? It's like the unfortunate waste of the word "awesome," a wonderfully descriptive and special word that should be reserved to describe those things that inspire awe: the concept of eternity . . . an enormous tidal wave rising from the sea . . . the power of a rocket ship . . . the Grand Canyon. Instead, it's being used as a common response to things like one's lunch order ("I'll have a tuna on rye." "Awesome.") or the making of plans ("OK. I'll see you Thursday." "Awesome."). We're left with no word to describe things that are awesome.

Those who throw words around without honoring their meanings encounter a problem of their own making. They must now scramble in search of new ways to express what was once expressed by the very words they've misused. And the Curmudgeon believes the unavailability of a suitable curse word when one is needed can increase frustration and anger, thereby escalating social discord. We're extra cranky because we lack sufficiently shocking words with which to express ourselves.

Profanity is like chocolate: tasty and satisfying. But using it all the time, indiscriminately, without any special meaning, is like having chocolate all the time, every day, with every meal. After a while, it loses its oomph. It's not special anymore.

That's why an elegant person keeps his curse words in his back pocket, saving them for when they’re really called for. And when that person tells you to fuck off? Whammo. It lands. That's how you get the most bang for your buck.

The proper use of profanity also calls for an awareness of one's surroundings, and of who might be within earshot. I recognize that restraint is now considered a quaint, outdated concept. But really, little children don’t need to hear you spouting “fuck”s and “shit”s in public. It’s simply not proper . . . unless a child is being a real asshole, in which case I find it best to curse at him directly. The same goes for using such words around the elderly, the clergy, or other authority figures. In fact, civilized individuals do not curse at all in highly trafficked public areas out of respect for anyone who might overhear and take offense. Concern for others: it's one of the things that separate us from the apes. “But it’s a free country,” some will say, “I can say whatever the fuck I want. We have freedom of speech.” Yes, yes. We all know that freedom of speech is guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Nevertheless, one can choose when and where to enjoy that freedom. And one can choose to be considerate. There’s nothing un-American about calibrating your public discourse out of thoughtfulness for others. No one’s trying to deprive you of your rights, only suggesting you ought to exercise them judiciously, and with an awareness that there are other people in the world besides you. That’s what the classy people do. Asshole.

There are secondary benefits to watching your language in public. You’re more likely to get favorable reactions from people, which leads to better treatment, better service, better tables at restaurants, better job interviews, better chances that people will find you attractive, and on and on. There's also a better chance that others won't think you a rude, low-class cretin. Think of it as being bilingual, able to alternate between profanity-laced speech and that which is publicly appropriate, depending on the situation.

Finally, when you do curse, curse well. Do it with conviction. Make it stick. When you call someone a shithead or a dickface . . . commit to it. When you tell someone to go fuck himself, let him know you mean it. When everything goes wrong and the only appropriate way of expressing it is to say, “awwww . . . son of a mother-fuckin' bitch,” let 'er rip. Recognize that these are special words for special occasions. If we continue to whittle away at their impact by dropping them indiscriminately, they won’t work right when we need them to. We won’t be able to adequately express the venom that curses are meant to express. And then? Well, then we’re truly fucked.

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