Tuesday, August 08, 2017


"Curses! Foiled again!"

This was the standby line shouted by caped, mustachioed villains in old cartoons when their plans went awry. Of course, they never really cursed back then ... it was a more innocent time, and certain standards applied to what was broadcast. Nowadays, of course, it seems as if the foulest and coarsest of language is almost expected, even of young children.

My mother used to say that people who had to resort to shouting four-letter words did so because they weren't smart enough to say anything less ugly, and we were raised to avoid using foul language whenever possible (although my father was fond of referring to certain individuals as horse's asses ... which, given some of the other language you hear in modern communication, seems almost quaint).

I got to thinking about the topic of foul language when I read Kirstin Wong's recent article in the New York Times: The Case for Cursing.

First of all, she distinguishes between swearing and cursing, writing,

"Swearing and cursing are often used interchangeably, but there’s a subtle difference in their origins. A curse implies damning or punishing someone, while a swear word suggests blasphemy — invoking a deity to empower your words. For the sake of modern discussion, both words are defined as profanity: vulgar, socially unacceptable language you don’t use in polite conversation."

She also notes that the words we consider objectionable in polite company are objectionable only because we have come to a general agreement within our culture that they should not be spoken aloud. For instance, we've decided that the f-bomb is a bad word, but spelunking isn't. Many of the words we have come to accept as curses involve variations on the act of sex, or "unmentionable" parts of the body ... actions and things we've decided are cultural taboos.

Are there good reasons for swearing or cursing? Ms Wong points out that while swearing can make your language more ... well ... colorful, some studies also show that it can increase your tolerance for pain, and also temporarily increase your strength. This is why you scream %#$! instead of great golden lilypads! when you hit your thumb with a hammer.

Now, I can curse with the best of them, but I try not to do it unless nothing else quite meets my linguistic requirement of the moment. I'm often subjected to my daughter's withering stare and warning of Dad, language! when I'm less than careful with my speech near the grandchildren, and so I try to use expletives that are less objectionable. Great Caesar's Ghost! is a good one, as are Godfrey Daniels! and Mother of Pearl!*. There are also two wonderful (and perfectly innocent) Russian words that I've found can be wonderful expletives when shouted angrily: chemodan! (which means "suitcase") and ptitsa! (which means "bird") ... ptitsa is especially good because you can really spit it out. German also has a lot of innocent words that sound bad just because of how they're pronounced, but one of my favorites is a bit on the more colorful side - Arschgeige (literally, "butt violin") refers to a person who is disgustingly arrogant or egotistical** ... and I can think of several of those without much effort.

There are plenty of other expressions we can use to describe undesirable or irritating people without resorting to cursing. My friend Lily recently referred to someone as a slimy douchenozzle, which I think is a marvelous combination, and much more emphatic than the more common expression douchebag.

And, of course, if horse's ass was okay for Dad, it's okay for me, too.

What are some of the expressions you use when you don't want to use objectionable language? Leave a comment and let the rest of us in on your linguistic skills. You never know when you may need to fire off a broadside in genteel company.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


* Courtesy of the master of cursing without really cursing, W. C. Fields.

** I think it derives from the attitude of such a person that even when they break wind, it sounds like a maestro playing a Stradivarius. 


eViL pOp TaRt said...

I enjoyed your essay. Horse's ass is quite acceptable to me; but why not the nether parts of other species as well?

Having proficiency in a foreign language or dialect gives a person considerable when it comes to swearing; a not often-cited reason for studying a second language. Here's one in Cajun French: couyon. it's roughly equivalent to dumbshit. Of source, merde covers a lot of territory. Putain isa put-down for a woman.

Mike said...

I've just read something recently that said people that cuss are smarter than normal. I think that's a bunch of horseshit.

Juliette said...

Cajun French is not quite standard.

allenwoodhaven said...

When I was a young teen, I said "Cripes" a great deal, to not cross the line into swearing, but I still got a look telling me to stop. I don't use it often anymore, but I like "Idiots and Philistines" for certain individuals. And, thanks to you Bilbo, I'm now fond of "Ass clown". I am willing to swear when the occasion arises, but find it's usually not necessary. When it is, it can be very cathartic!