Friday, November 3, 2023

Something to Know - 3 November

You may ask as to why I am sending out something far away from the mainstream as this article.  Well, I don't really know, but it has something to do with how bad things are out there in the world, and something as mild as swearing with "dirty" words is much more humanly harmless than people killing each other for nothing more than religious or ethnic genocide.   So, take this article as an escape and the feeling of whimsy for what it is, knowing that there certainly are worse things to talk about.


The Secret Power of Swearing

Nov. 1, 2023
An old engraved illustration of a dignified-looking woman, with a yellow rectangle and the letters and emoticon F, :), C and K covering her mouth.

Dr. Roache is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the author of the book "For F*ck's Sake: Why Swearing Is Shocking, Rude and Fun," from which this essay is adapted.

Swearing can be so satisfying that it can help us withstand pain. It can shock, offend and entertain. It can release tension or increase it. It can foster intimacy.
What's swearing's secret? How do four-letter words move us in all the ways they do?
All languages have taboos, things that nice people don't mention in polite company, and these taboos tend to cluster around themes like religion, defecation, disease and sex — in other words, things that can harm us physically or spiritually. As the linguists Keith Allan and Kate Burridge put it, the harmfulness of taboos "contaminates" certain words that refer to them, making those related words taboo, too. This is usually how a word becomes a swearword.
Which taboos are strongest tracks societal values. Something previously acceptable can become a taboo, or vice versa. In prudish Victorian Britain, extremely lewd street names that existed unproblematically throughout the country in the Middle Ages were bowdlerized. And in increasingly secular cultures the taboo around religious-themed words has waned. Take "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," Rhett Butler's famous line in the film "Gone With the Wind": It is far less shocking to modern ears than it was to the film's audience in 1939.

But ghosts of once powerful taboos can continue to haunt us. Consider, as Professors Allan and Burridge do, spilling salt, which was once both expensive and spiritually significant. Throwing a pinch of spilled salt over one's left shoulder, into the eyes of the devil that resided there, was supposed to ward off bad fortune. Lots of people still do this, but not, I suspect, to blind the devil. In a similar way, swear words, once contaminated with the disgust or power associated with a strong taboo, retain their power even as the shock value of those origins wanes.

These days we mostly cause offense by swearing because swearing is a behavior that causes offense. When we swear in a context in which we can assume those around us would prefer we didn't, that choice is a sign of our disrespect.

Situating the capacity to offend in the swearer's intent helps some puzzling things about swearing make sense, like why it's somehow less offensive to replace a letter with an asterisk, despite the fact that everyone still knows what it means. The choice sends a message to the reader: I recognize that this word might offend you, and I care about your feelings. Because intent matters, a few asterisks can rob the word of its potency.

But swearing, even without censorship or euphemism, can also be affectionately benign. To be understood this way, a listener needs to trust that the speaker is not verbally attacking but letting his or her guard down and signaling that the setting is informal and the relationship is friendly. Swearing in these contexts can even foster intimacy between recent acquaintances. Between people who already trust each other, it's an excellent way to communicate affection.
In some social contexts, like at a sports match or in a bar with friends, friendly swearing is well established. What about at work? In a 2004 study, researchers recorded conversations between employees of a New Zealand soap factory and found that good-humored swearing was common between workers who knew each other well but absent between workers who were not part of the same friend group. At the office, a historically formal environment that has been trending toward informality, it's possible to hear the occasional expletive in a meeting or read one in a group chat — more common in some industries than in others.

But before you partake, it's worth remembering that swearing's tendency to vary in offensiveness over time and with context, along with its seemingly magical capacity to shock, can also reflect our usual prejudices and biases. Swearing ought to be an equal-opportunity endeavor, but we're not there yet.

And there remain plenty of contexts in which swearing is wholly inappropriate, like in a job interview or when meeting our future in-laws for the first time. We'd be horrified to hear a babysitter swear at a child in her care. And in this publication there remains "a steep threshold for vulgar words."
It's not the case that American or British culture has become more difficult to shock in general. Indeed, we are more shocked today by racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist and other discriminatory language than we were a few decades ago. Material historically regarded as benign and wholesome now routinely comes with trigger warnings when taught to students.
Taken together, what emerges is that we're not becoming harder to shock but that what we find offensive continues to shift and evolve, as it always has. In 2020, "Gone With the Wind" was temporarily pulled from a streaming service after criticism — not of anything Rhett Butler said but of the film's romantic depictions of the antebellum South. When it was reinstated a few months later, an introductory video had been added with a warning that it "can be uncomfortable, even painful," viewing.

The linguist Geoff Nunberg wrote that "dirty words are magic spells that conjure up their references." We invoke them to let off steam, raise hell or share a laugh — often while barely making sense. It's fascinating to excavate their history and understand better where that magic comes from. But it's also satisfying to simply revel in the power we grant language to move us.


Q. What is the difference between a law-abiding gun owner and a criminal?

A.  The .2 of a second that it takes to pull a trigger.

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