Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Morris on &*$#!

In the October 10, 2010, edition of The Wall Street Journal, Jan Morris offers a theory for why profane language has lost its potency. Excerpts:
By now the "F" word has become so commonplace throughout the English-speaking world that one does not even notice it. Children use it in the street. Novelists make the most of it. It has become, in the lexicon of scurrility, a word without meaning.

And it is in this way, I fear, that the whole repertoire of bad language is losing its true function and its style -- the function of shock, the style of effect. "Bugger off!" really meant something when Churchill used it half a century ago. Today it is milk-sop stuff.

Time has overtaken the vocabulary because it was based upon now unfashionable conceptions -- the mystery of religion, the exciting taboos of sex.
Read the whole thing. Morris is certainly correct in saying that profanity has lost some of its pop in recent years, although I doubt it's to the degree in which she would like us to believe. (Note her telling use of "the 'F' word" to signify, well, the "F" word.) Also, can one really argue that obscenity's edge has dulled solely because of the blunting of underlying taboos? Isn't it rather the case that the connection between ungracious syllables and the subject itself gets sliced through repetition of the former? I mean, taboos against incest are still pretty darn strong, and I can think of one popular obscenity that refers to it. (You are all bright people, dear readers, so I trust you can figure out said expression on your own.) Do those who employ fully comprehend what they're referencing when they open their mouths? Doubtful.

Why belabor the point? Well, whether or not you approve of profanity in personal speech (for the record, I don't), you can probably still concede that it serves a purpose in creative writing. A foul word can establish a negative character or drive home a rhetorical point. But if repetition is what robs profanity of its punch, if it turns it into just another string of sounds, then we ought to use it sparingly. Carefulness is key.

(Picture: CC 2005 by
sabine01)

12 comments:

Loren Eaton said...

If WSJ wants you to subscribe when you try to click through to the article, remember that Google is your friend.

C. N. Nevets said...

I think the impact depends on specific context still. When I was doing archaeology and when I was doing forensics around cops, the F verbal pause was so common that it was, essentially meaningless.

There were a couple of us, though, who weren't in the habit of swearing and when one young when used a pretty simple, basic swear, everyone else stopped talking and stared at her.

In the general melieu, the word would have been meaningless, but coming from her it was shocking to them.

That's more or less how I try to approach it in my writing. It has to serve a purpose. I have some potty mouthed characters, but they are that way for some specific reason.

Unknown said...

Steven Pinker has a whole chapter on this in "The Stuff of Thought." I don't think you can wholly discount the idea that a weakened taboo will commensurately weaken the power of the curse word. Pinker makes the case fairly convincingly that one of the functions of profanity is to tap into deep taboos in the brain, and if what is taboo changes, then the curse words change as well. For example, wits often remark on the nonsensical nature of "F*ck you!" as a threat; Pinker argues that "F*ck you!" is actually the modern Western version of "D*mn you!" save that the idea of eternal damnation has lost a considerable amount of its punch in the modern first world due to the trend away from religion and toward secularism; the need for profanity and cursing remained, and so a word with more taboo connotations (violent, active sexuality) took the place of the weaker word (and in the process rendered the phrase rather silly, grammatically speaking.)

Jim Murdoch said...

What I've noticed is that the C-word is starting to creep into films and onto TV. Because the F-word has lost its potency, it's capacity to shock. So where are all the new swear words? What's going to shock us in 100 years time?

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I blame the relaxation of prohibitions on "highbrow" speech.

It is interesting how conservative swear-words are: Chaucer uses the c-word, though while one feels that it is clearly a crudity, it didn't have the same power when spelled "queint." But the f-word has been traced to the early middle ages, and shockingly modern-sounding curses appear in Chandler, detectible despite the dashes used to censor the swear word.

What I think is happening is that our desire for realism in fiction is stealing some of the punch from curse words themselves, and placing it on usage. All of a sudden there are very few words that we haven't heard uttered many times on a screen or in a book. I can hear f-bombs until the cows come home, if uttered in a normal environment, and not be fazed. But when the guy on the bus gets in the driver's face and calls him an "a--hole," everyone on board tenses with shock.

Of course this didn't stop a class of seminary students from seeing the language in a certain vampire story as excessively jarring and disturbing.


Slightly relatedly, have you seen The Town? It has a great (and hilarious) scene making fun of amateur attempts to convey crude language that they don't speak.

Loren Eaton said...

Nevets,

That's more or less how I try to approach it in my writing. It has to serve a purpose.

This is a good principal no matter what one thinks about profanity in general. I think it will lead to better writing.

Loren Eaton said...

SC,

I don't think you can wholly discount the idea that a weakened taboo will commensurately weaken the power of the curse word.

I agree. I just don't think that's the only (or maybe even primary?) way obscenities lose their punch. Morris does.

... and so a word with more taboo connotations (violent, active sexuality) took the place of the weaker word (and in the process rendered the phrase rather silly, grammatically speaking.)

Gramatically silly profanities are something of a supporting point, I think. Consider the absolutely incomprehensible "f---ing s---." What does that mean? Do I even want to think about it? No, I do not.

Loren Eaton said...

Jim,

I've noticed that too. In fact, the movie Atonement splashed it across the entire screen in an early scene. I nearly fell out of my chair.

Loren Eaton said...

CR,

What I think is happening is that our desire for realism in fiction is stealing some of the punch from curse words themselves, and placing it on usage.

That's ... provocative. I'm going to need to mull over it a bit. Context certainly does matter.

Alas, seminarians and vampires don't mix, unless perhaps they're watching The Addiction.

Haven't seen The Town yet, but I really want to.

C. N. Nevets said...

@Rambler - I think there's something to what you said. Having worked with the cops and the archaeologists, when I write their dialogue it just sort of naturally flows out with all the pepper of the real speech.

Of course, when it hits that volume, it's breadcrumbs, not pepper.

pattinase (abbott) said...

It is shocking to walk near 10 year olds and hear them using this language more naturally than I ever will.

Loren Eaton said...

Patti,

Methinks it's no shame to not excel in that area.