Wednesday, May 19, 2010
In Praise of Profanity
This morning I read about Joe Biden's apology to a Kentucky teen for dropping an F-bomb about the passage of Obama's healthcare bill (to wit: "This is a big F-ing deal"). The kid, Brandon Halcomb, had written an open letter criticizing Biden for his language. Kudos to the teen for standing up for what he believes in. That said, I would like to say a few words in defense of the one that starts with F.
I'm in complete agreement with those who bemoan the abuse of that word in everyday conversation, in the media, etc. I don't like hearing it all the time, or in polite company, either. Because the F-word is a word of marvelous potency. Unlike most words in the English language, it sounds like exactly what it means. An angry swear. An order. Coarse and guttural, with a hiss at the beginning and a clipped, abrupt end. Used sparingly, it manages to pull into itself a much greater atomic weight than its four letters would naturally possess, and in a single use can convey the depth of frustration and aggression and anger. Or immensity, or urgency. Four little letters that can do all that. I use it a lot when I write, only when I need it, but always when I need it. It's a wonderful word.
A while back I read a study about how profanity can inspire teamwork. If you save your swear words only for people with whom you work closely, then they function as social cues to let the other person know you let your guard down with them; they're part of your in-club. Should Biden have sworn with his mike on? Well, no, but he got his point across better in a succinct five words than any television pundit did in a thousand. We knew he meant it off-the-record, so it carries the function of "teamwork swearing" in terms of letting us into his private little moment of happiness.
I hear comments all the time from people who don't like to see profanity in novels. Sometimes they'll even haughtily say, "Just use another word. Sheesh." Curse words can be distracting in large doses, and are sadly overused by many writers as a way to substitute for real use of voice. But sometimes there is no other word. Characters are supposed to talk the way people do, but with less stammering and more brevity and precision. And while some readers might wish people spoke in the language of prime-time television characters of the 1970's, as a writer I'm not willing to fog my lens for you. So if my character tells me to tell you he's fuckin' exhausted, that's what you're going to hear. But rest assured, it's the writer's job to make every single word on the page earn its keep, and the F-word is no exception.
And so on that note, let's all work together not to spoil the potency of our very small store of serious curse words. Please don't put them on bumper stickers where my kids can see them. Please don't grate on my listening ear and finer sensibilities by using them in line behind me at the pharmacy. Save them for your friends, and for when you really, really mean it. Because unlike most things politicians say, you can count on those few little words to, as the caterpillar exhorted in 'Alice in Wonderland,' "say what you mean."