My father, Sylvester, did not swear often. A rare "damn" was used if things were going terribly. The s-word was used simply because we had animals and had to deal with the waste substance being described.
But on occasion, when a cow was not cooperating or some man had done something despicable, my dad would utter in a lowered voice, "Schweinhund." Translated from German, a schweinhund is a pig dog. Now, if I was really angry at you and walked up to you and called you a "pig dog," you probably wouldn't take me too seriously.
In German, though, "Schweinhund" is a grave insult. When my dad was young, his parents spoke German. Like many at that time, his first English came at country school. German was his native tongue, and the depth of meaning in a word like schweinhund was felt by him. To us, it just sounds silly.
Of course, we English-speakers have plenty of our own cuss words. I love words. I get to fool around with them here every couple of weeks. But when I hear or read thoughts that include obscenities, I cringe. It always seems like the user is proving he is not smart enough to make the point with "good" words. That said, I am a sinner, too.
Oh, there are times I strip a bolt with a crescent wrench and try to ram my knuckles through metal. Or I might wind up with a perfect backswing and hit the top of my golf ball rolling it about ten feet. In these moments of anguish, something has to come out, a release. It might be "Ack!" or some other guttural cry of agony. Often it is one of those words that I don't like.
There are other times I use blue language where I can't forgive myself as easily. I've noticed that unconsciously I have different vocabularies I use in different settings. I don't swear at home. A few times as the kids were growing up they came home with a new word, and I made it perfectly clear that we would not have that language in our house.
But if I'm having a beer with old classmates or farmer-buddies, I hear myself using a sprinkling of "bad" words. It's never out of anger; if I am angry, I'm going to carefully choose the words I use. It's more a part of our humor, like a joke where we pretend to be tough guys. Lots of times it's part of giving each other "crap." See. There I go.
Speaking of tough guys, I heard a sociologist talking about tribal cultures. He mentioned that they don't have "swear" words in their language. The use of profanity is part of a macho attitude, a way of trying to look strong. In these tribal villages, there is no such thing as "looking" strong. If you are pretending, you aren't going to survive. You better be able to hunt or defend the tribe. Sounding tough doesn't help.
Sometimes I am in a convenience store and some guy is cussing on his cell phone, oblivious to children or others around him. I wish I could magically lift the punk up by the scruff of his neck and drop him into the Amazon jungle. "Here you go, tough guy. See how far the f-word gets you here."
Unfortunately you don't have to go to a convenience store to hear bad language. Thanks to television, foul words are there at the touch of your remote. Here I'll sound old, but in the World That I Grew Up In, it was safe to turn on the TV with kids around. The rare "hell" or "damn" might be dropped after 9 p.m. Now all sorts of words that I don't want my children to use are there 24/7.
Movies have also slid into the mucky part of the road. I enjoy the theater experience. But I find myself thinking, "Lots of people I know don't talk like this, why do these characters have to?" When an actor is unleashing a string of profanities to an audience in a theater, or worse, in your home, what are we gaining here? There used to be a notion of art being "fine" or "high." What would be so wrong with the media striving to higher standards hoping to lift viewers upward? Instead, media is coarser, which causes us to act coarser, which causes media to be coarser, which causes us
Besides, reserving a strong word till the right moment can be effective. "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," caused people to gasp in 1939. There was a time Ezra was little and an older kid was picking on him. I picked him up at school and he was telling me about this. I said to him, "Why don't you just tell him to, 'Go to hell?'" Ezra looked at me with wide eyes, like I'd just handed him a weapon. If that sort of language isn't part of your daily fare, it can empower.
For all the annoyance I feel about the awful words, I would gladly accept them if we agreed to take the Third Commandment seriously. Can we leave God out of this? Obviously calling God's damnation onto something is offensive. But do we have to "Oh-my-God" everything? "Oh, my God" can be a lovely little prayer. Now it is used to express everything but prayer. Monotheists should organize to fight this plague.
Profane words are a funny thing. They're just sounds we make, but we assign this negative meaning to them. Their only power comes from all of us giving them that power. If we decide tomorrow the f-word and s-word mean nothing, we could do that.
But then what happens to the good and beautiful words? What about I "care" for you, and I am your "friend," and I "love" you. We want, we need, these to have power and meaning. Then we must accept that all words have power and meaning. The author Wendell Berry wrote an essay called "Standing by Words." It ends with this thought, "We are speaking where we stand, and we shall stand afterwards in the presence of what we have said." The words we choose are who we are. For those who knew us, they will be part of our legacy. We'd best choose carefully.