50 Shades of Blue Revisited

Over five years ago, I wrote a post about swearing on my blog. I was a proponent for the judicious use of swear words that served as a point of emphasis or humor. These days, when politicians and pundits regularly use profanity, when prime time television is littered with it, the adolescent novelty has worn off. It is no longer serving much purpose, nor does it give me the joy it once did. People eventually ruin everything. I, too, am people, and have definitely ruined swearing for myself.

canstockphoto8636729Perhaps it is that I hear myself in the car or muttering anywhere public and I have begun to sound as trashy as our current politicians. It is a reminder that neither money nor power nor platform is evidence of human decency or compassionate intelligence. Profanity is the least of it, but perhaps a sign post that bad logic, mundane evil, mendacious lies, and atrocious grammar is sure to follow. I’ve begun to conflate them and question if I need to make a change.

To say that I can be a contrarian would be an understatement. This is why, for the first time in my adult life, I’m considering giving up swearing altogether. I’m not all that confident that I would be able to do it, but if public, political, and entertainment conversation is trending in that direction, I feel the compulsion to go the other. It has gotten so much worse since that election three years ago – the need to express frustrations and fears in the form of cursing. I find that I do it most when I feel powerless or anxious. Sometimes it feels like the only thing that carries any venom.

We’re in the age of words, drowning in opinions and reviews and pundits, flooding our brains with unfiltered information, much of it false or hyperbolic. The language itself is mutating through the lens of liars until words are rendered meaningless. Profanities have been baked into the mix, no longer raw or shocking, only slightly jarring.

canstockphoto11556664Language is a beautiful system of communication and the English language, with 171k+ active words, provides us with so many options. The individual alone knows approximately 20-35K words. I’ve begun to think about the words I haven’t used instead of curse words. Like rapscallion instead of douchebag. Or stinkard instead of shithead. Even the North Korean dictator introduced us to a good word – dotard. As a writer, it would behoove me to expand my vocabulary, instead of using old standbys that made me snicker as an adolescent.

While I was down and out with a cold, I re-watched a goofy science fiction series called Farscape. All the cursing was comprised of made up words (frell, yotz, dren, drelk). And it worked. I realized that it was all tone and context that gave the words their meaning, not the choice of the words themselves.

Profanity itself is not an intelligence marker, nor does it seem any longer to be indicative of my working class roots or my stint in the military. There is not a moral argument to be made. Words designated as profane have always been a cultural construct, but it is their suppression that makes them useful for emphasis or humor. Being common renders them essentially ineffective.

canstockphoto14200558.jpgIt’s time to choose differently. I tend to be judicious in my writing and I prefer no limits, but I definitely need to clean up my conversational skills. My first step will be practicing at home. My cat might finally learn his real name. Then I can level up in public with friends, and the final mastery of the game, driving in metro traffic. I need to look up some better words.

What’s your favorite non-profanity?

37 Comments on “50 Shades of Blue Revisited

  1. I agree completely, I’ll do it with you. I’ve been out and about with the kids lately at several kid-oriented events and I’m shocked by how some parents are cussing freely in front of their little ones (and mine). My favorite non-profanity comes from my grandfather, an immigrant with a super thick Polish accent. He’d drop a hammer on his toe or spill his coffee or something and say “God Bless America.”

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    • There’s so many creative words to use and I still find myself cringing when I hear all the public swearing. I suppose since I was raised to recognize “naughty words”, they will always seem cringe-worthy, even as future generations normalize them. But hypocrisy, thy name is me. After having a child, I was conscientious about not swearing, but once she became a teenager, all restraint disappeared. Time to rein it back in!

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  2. I recently revisited an intriguing expletive when re-reading ‘Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia’ by Piers Vitebsky. When disaster struck, such as when their herds ran amok in the forest to gobble mushrooms during the brief Siberian fungal florescence, Eveny herders were wont to cry ‘japonski bog’ as they galloped after their crazed animals, desperate to regain control. I seem to think you know Russian, Michelle, but for those who don’t, this translates as ‘Japanese god’. Vitebsky could find no explanation for the usage, though everyone seemed to exclaim it. And maybe that works too – words without meaning. Japonski bog! I might just adopt it.

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    • I wouldn’t adopt it. It’s a euphemistic phrase that stands in for another phrase meaning “F- your mother”. Linguistics are fun, aren’t they? I have a question for you, though. I’m very fond of British words. Is wanker or git considered swearing in the UK?

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      • Wanker is a colloquialism meaning to masturbate instead of getting the job done. Not a term of endearment usually reserved for very stupid and or unpleasant men. Definitely a swear word in common use

        Git is not as bad it means an unpleasant or contemptible person. Also in common use but not usually classed as a swear word.

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      • Well that’s an interesting meaning for Japanese god. Maybe I’ll just stick to the F- word, that occasionally in polite company transforms to follicles. Wanker is a pretty rude term, laddish, but in current usage. Though not a word to use in front of one’s mother or the vicar. Git is not considered quite so rude, but there again you wouldn’t call your teacher a git and expect to get away without a detention. I think mothers of a certain era and maiden aunts would consider the word ‘coarse’ and would never utter it. So yes, the intricacies of language, euphemisms not the least of them.

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        • Sometimes euphemistic phrasing is more to do with the sound of the language rather than the actual meaning, like saying “son of a gun” rather than “son of a bitch”. I remembering reading a book on swearing and cross-cultural linguistics. It was very interesting how some of these phrases and words come about and change.

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  3. Liked your thoughts Michelle. I grew up in a rough mining town. However “grown ups” didn’t swear in front of the children. It wasn’t until I went for my first pint with my dad that I learnt he could cuss with the best of them. Women did swear but we children never heard them. To swear in the street was scandalous and certainly got the tongues wagging.
    Now at 71 years of age it still jars my core sensibilities to hear a woman swear. Strange how life turns out. I decided to stop swearing at 24 years and am astonished at how the use of language has shrunk over the years.
    (UK spelling)

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    • There is something to be said about the generation gap. I think that time has sped up over the last 20 years, with the develop of technology and social media – trends and behaviors catch on like wildfire and overnight, cultural norms have changed. It’s a lot to adjust to and even then, when something is impressed upon you as a child, it sticks with a person their whole life. There are some things worth adapting to and others not. I would say profanity would be in the “not” column.

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  4. I cannot imagine anything more difficult to manage – I wish you luck!

    I have adopted a cousin’s non-profanity, for it’s quaintness: “my word!” Another is “poopyhead,” a modification of the harsher iteration.

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    • Thanks – I am being more mindful. Which means I’m only stopping myself mid-profanity! It is going to be very difficult. I like to think, though, that breaking/making/learning new habits is a great cognitive exercise as one ages. My brain will have to bulk up for this!

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  5. Interesting, I have also been trying to tone down my swearing. I don’t have a favourite non-profanity. It’s never occurred to me. I will have to give that some thought😊

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    • Every once in a while I’ll overhear a conversation in public and I think “Ugh. That’s what I sound like sometimes.” and feel just a little embarrassed for myself. It’s reminders like those that will help me along, I think.

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  6. “Great balls of puppy fluff!” (Of course, that is not what escapes when one stubs the bare baby toe… ) I hadn’t really linked the increase in my or others’ trash-talk to our ever-growung frustration since 2016.. I think you’re right.

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    • It might be a tenuous connection, but I think having high profile people on social media and in interviews swearing like mob bosses (a deliberate simile) likely doesn’t help, either. Part of it, too, is I’ve begun to think about what is actually helpful in the world and what isn’t. Swearing usually doesn’t improve anything – even as a release valve for stress. It just feeds the fire, internally and externally. When the world is burning, feeding the fire is not helpful. Hmm…off on a weird tangent there.

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  7. Kurt Vonnegut–admittedly no stranger to swearing, and I was shocked the first time I read Slaughterhouse Five to see a word I’d previously only heard on the playground and cable TV–said in one of his later novels that swearing simply gives people an excuse not to listen to you. Really good point there.
    Mostly I find myself muttering the word “criminy” which I realize is nonsensical and inoffensive, but the cluster of consonants works for me. If I really want to take someone down, though, I say their mother was a hamster and their father smelt of elderberries.
    I really should watch “Farscape”.

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    • I always figure that people who aren’t intent on listening are easily dissuaded, which is what I took away from the Vonnegut quote.
      “Criminy” is a good one. I sometimes sound like I’ve wandered out of a nursing home with “Jiminy Christmas”. I looked up the history of the phrase and it is a mashup of religious and Disney references. Makes absolutely no sense at all.
      Farscape is a Jim Henson production, so in addition to a partial puppet cast, it takes delight in all sorts of gross effluvia – lots of spitting and farting and unidentified goop. It’s quite a goofy show.

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    • That cleaned up nicely. I heard the comedian, Kathleen Madigan, make fun of Sarah Palin’s “fake cussing” years, and her examples made me cringe. Apparently, there’s a fine line between cleaning up language and sounding infantile.

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  8. While I have been known to use most of the usual curse words, I get a great deal of satisfaction out of the non-profanity “Criminy Dutch.” I believe I first heard it said by Emily Hartley on the old 1980’s Bob Newhart Show. There’s something very satisfying about the way it trips off the tongue.

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    • Some of the suggestions here make it seem like the sound, not the meaning is the trick. “Criminy dutch” with its rolling syllables and a single syllable stop is a nice one. I was severely tested yesterday when a vaping teenager opened her car door and smacked into my side mirror. She didn’t even notice. I muttered something about a self-involved vaping little shit as they drove away. But mentally reprimanded myself. I guess that’s progress.

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  9. I lived in Japan for a few years and the rudest word I learned (and remembered) is Bakka. (Means Stupid)It’s satisfying to say when I’m irritated. I think it’s the Ks that make is so. Although I use that other satisfying ‘k’ word plenty and well, it IS satisfying. I agree with you though and I’m going to cut back on profanity too – and saying sorry. Crazy how often and unnecessarily I say that.

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    • I find myself using all sorts of foreign phrases out of context. Some languages do the trick better than others. Russians have SO many options for swearing. The French have some good ones as well. When I was working with English learners, I picked up a few Spanish ones. In a metro area, though, with lots of immigrants, I have to be aware that I might be understood.

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  10. Funny how us military can pick up non-English “bad” words. I was working at the Army Reserve Center one day and was walking to my car and hear a fellow soldier say “shit” in German. My response was “really?”. He apologized that he had had “one of those days, and his ex wife was German and he thought know one would understand him saying it.” The fact is someone is always listening and remembering that maybe helps curb the use of such language. But- I am guilty as charged in its uses. In several languages.

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    • German swear words sound too much like the actual words to be easily disguised. I had gotten adept at Russian swearing until I moved to Minneapolis. Riding the bus to work for many years, I heard more Russian than I did in grad school studying Russian linguistics.

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      • Funny how small the world has gotten. As I read your blog I thought of all the English swear words I hear in normal Dutch conversation on public transportation here. I often complain to the hubby about it but I guess I should complain to mass media and the video game producers.

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  11. I like the idea of swearing in another language. In reality, i generally stick to “s – – t.” said quietly under my breath. I don’t like to swear out loud in general, as it seems there’s way too much nowadays, and the offender’s intelligence seems inversely related to the amount of swearing.

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    • I consider swearing more a question of habit, rather than an intellectual or moral marker. Words designated as “bad” are a cultural construct that shifts with each prevailing generation. The blurring lines between private and public domain, though, have changed the frequency of usage and how often we hear it.

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  12. Per usual, you have captured something I’ve become more aware of lately–my own capacity for public vulgarity à la my guttural lingua franca. (Or would that be lingua scatalogica?) Let us bring back at least one social nicety: clean, thoughtful, and frack-free discourse. It’s about darned time.

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  13. My dad, brought up in a Methodist household, was taught to greet a stubbed toe and the like with ‘Jam and smash the muddy buffer!’

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