I was on the subway when two 17-year-old girls got on the train. They started talking in the excited way that teenaged girls do about an upcoming school trip which would take them overnight to Chicago. It was a normal enough conversation about what they were going to see and do, who else was going on the trip and how excited they were, except that every second or third word was an expletive. The entire conversation was peppered with them just as adjectives might be thrown in to paint a more brilliant description to a listener.
Of course, my initial reaction was surprise, then shock, then disappointment. To say the least, I was relieved when they finally exited the train as I’m sure a few other adults were. Now I’m no prude, and I myself use the odd expletive from time-to-time, but this was blatant misuse!
I know that in today’s society, rappers and other singers use profanity in their music and I know that the Y generation uses profanity nonchalantly as a means of expression, but does that make it okay?
In early childhood, crying is an acceptable way to show emotion and relieve stress and anxiety. As children, (especially boys) grow up, Western society discourages them from crying, particularly in public. People still need an outlet for strong emotions, and that’s where swearing often comes in.
A lot of people think of swearing as an instinctive response to something painful and unexpected (like hitting your thumb with a hammer) or something frustrating and upsetting (like being stuck in traffic on the way to a job interview). This is one of the most common uses for swearing, and it may help to relieve stress and blow off steam, much like crying does for small children.
But swearwords aren’t quite as simple as they seem. They are paradoxical — saying them is taboo in nearly every culture, but instead of avoiding them as with other taboos, people use them. People swear for a number of reasons and in a variety of situations. Swearing also serves multiple purposes in social interactions and the use of particular expletives can help to establish a group identity, or membership in a group and maintain the group’s boundaries, express solidarity with other people, express trust and intimacy, add humour, emphasis or “shock value” or attempt to camouflage a person’s fear or insecurity.
People also swear because they feel they are expected to or because swearing has become a habit. But just because swearing plays all these roles doesn’t mean it’s socially acceptable.
In many English-speaking communities, expletives also carry connotations of lower classes and lower economic standing. Although people from every economic level use swearwords, many people associate their use with people of lower income and education.
So what’s wrong with swearing? Swearing isn’t just a social taboo. It imposes a personal penalty. It gives a bad impression of you. It makes you unpleasant to be with. It endangers your relationships. It’s a tool for whiners and complainers. It reduces the respect people have for you. It shows you don’t have control. It’s a sign of a bad attitude. It discloses a lack of character. It show that you are immature. It reflects your ignorance and it sets a bad example especially to younger children.
Swearing is bad for society too. It contributes to the decline of civility. It represents the dumbing down of the world. It offends more people than you think. It makes others uncomfortable. It is disrespectful of others. It turns discussions into arguments. It can be a sign of hostility and it can lead to violence.
And, swearing corrupts the English language. It’s abrasive, lazy language. It doesn’t communicate clearly. It neglects more meaningful words. It lacks imagination and it has lost its effectiveness.
So the next time you feel the urge to swear try one of these tips.
Pretend that your sweet little grandmother or a young child is always next to you. Use inflections for emphasis instead of offensive adjectives. Look to the bright side. A positive mental attitude not only eliminates lots of swearing, it brings you contentment and brightens your personality. Stop cussing and learn to cope. Consider even the smallest annoyance a challenge, and feel proud of yourself for taking care of it cheerfully and efficiently. Before you start griping or whining about something, remind yourself of a very important reality: no one wants to hear it! Why would they?
English is a colorful language. Take the time to develop your own list of alternatives to the nasty words you now use, relying on your own intelligence, a thesaurus, good books, and even some of the more clever TV shows. Select a few powerful or even funny words, and get in the habit of substituting them for swear words. Some substitute words can be just as offensive if your tone is abrasive or you insult someone. Take the time to make your point in a mature and convincing manner.
Breaking the swearing habit might prove to be no easier that losing weight, giving up cigarettes, or correcting any other habit. It takes practice, support from others, and a true desire to be a better person. I have faith that you can do it!
The foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing is a vice so mean and low that every person of sense and character detests and despises it. –George Washington
These are interesting times.
C. Carol Brown