It’s a damn good time to be a four-letter word in America. Last week, before President Obama revealed his softer side during a speech on gun control, he let his sailory side rip during an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld.
“I curse,” Obama said when asked how he blows off steam. “Bad stuff or stupid stuff is happening constantly every day. So you have to be able to just make fun of a lot of that. … That’s when cursing is really valuable.”
You heard it here first, my friends: The expletive is on the bleeping rise, and I’m not just talking about my 10-year-old bellowing along with “S.O.B.,” the popular new throwback ditty by alternative radio darlings Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. No, I’m talking about widespread institutional clemency on cussing.
First there was the study showing that swearing actually helps us manage pain (and if you’ve never spewed venomous verbal filth while midway through a two-minute plank, then you’re really not taking full advantage of this discovery). In its wake came studies insisting that tossing off an occasional R-rated word helps you bond with friends, makes you more popular at work, and boosts your confidence.
Then just last month, Michigan repealed an outdated law that had long made it illegal to use “indecent, immoral, obscene, vulgar or insulting language in front of women or children.” But even as governor-sanctioned and long-stifled F-words rained down upon the Great Lakes State, I was getting my figurative mouth washed out with soap by a dirty-word-detesting reader.
“The profanity used in your publication is offensive,” the gentleman wrote in to say, calling out me and another writer by name. (I won’t say who the other writer is because I feel that would be disrespectful, and Nick has never been anything but respectful to me.) “Please employ critically thinking and articulate writers or don’t include those particular authors or columns at all.”
“#*¢% him,” I told the editor who shared his note. And we dropped it there.
Look, I’m no fan of anyone who slings the vulgar vernacular out of laziness. Skilled communicators don’t shock an audience into paying attention; they earn every ear (or eye) with, say, stunning wit, unexpected courage, a gleaming argument. They do it by wielding something that’s hard to come by — and street talk isn’t.
Still, I won’t be primming up my prose to satisfy this reader for two reasons:
(1) I do find that a well-placed linguistic indelicacy — a sweet little coarse verb or tawdry noun — can add real dimension to a sentence. Passion. Punctuation. Like a seven-part harmony you weren’t anticipating but your ear locked onto and couldn’t shake. Or a familiar flavor you weren’t expecting to find in this dish, but there it is on the back of your tongue, and damn if it isn’t delicious, and you think you’ll go back for another helping.
(2) Science, yet again, has my back. The very latest study on “taboo language” shows that contrary to common assumption, the more swear words a person knows, the larger her vocabulary tends to be in general. It’s true! I … well, I swear.
What that means for you, dear reader, is that I can be both offensive and articulate — and I will likely continue to do so. But this censuring has been a welcome reminder to heed my own advice, the advice I give my children when they ask about “bad words.”
There are no bad words, I tell them. There are only sensitive and less-sensitive audiences. Know your audience. Or be ready to get kicked in the crass.