The Truth of Profanity

Language, obviously, is an enormous part of a writer’s life, but it isn’t always about following the usual rules. Slang, phonetically-written accents, and sometimes even completely made-up nonsense can all have their place depending on the piece being written. These things can bring character to a piece of writing. And you know what else can bring character to writing? Wait for it….profanity.

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Confession time: this post is not about writing techniques. This post is about profane language and how humorous that I find it when people get all bent out of shape over it.

Second confession: you would likely never guess from reading my blog, but I am actually a very profane person. I wasn’t when I was younger (in fact, I didn’t even curse at all until I was in my teens), but I’ve spent most of my adult life working with tradesmen, and with that comes a certain affinity for what we might call “bad words”. I express myself more eloquently through written word, but vocally I am the kind of person who manages to squeeze the “f” word into every other sentence. And if I screw something up, or hurt myself, or otherwise get very annoyed about something? I’ve impressed (and maybe scared) my husband and my coworkers with the strings of hypenated swear words that come pouring out of my mouth. The point is that nothing anyone else says is going to shock me because I’ve probably said the same thing a hundred times myself.

Now here’s the thing…I know people (mostly older members of the family) who don’t like profanity and are offended by it, so for the sake of being polite I will avoid using profanity when around these people. Additionally, though I slip sometimes, I will avoid cursing around children because I know that many parents don’t want their kids to hear that kind of thing.

Despite that level of respect for other people’s desires, however, I often find myself wondering just what the hell the big deal is.

Here’s my way of thinking…

Words have power, that much is certain. But that power depends on two things: intent and reaction.

Intent is extremely important because words themselves are inherently innocent without some kind of cruel or obscene intention behind them. I can call my daughter a rotten little shit, but if I do so while smiling and hugging her those words will reflect love and amusement. Alternatively, I can tell my daughter that she’s beautiful and I love her, but if I do so while physically abusing her…well, those words are going to reflect the very opposite of how they’re usually understood. Intent is what makes words “bad”, not the words themselves. There is a huge difference between being called a bitch by a laughing, joking friend, and being called a bitch by an abusive relative.

And the other thing, of course, is the reaction, which is the part that I find the silliest, because it really comes down to choosing to be offended by something that isn’t worth the energy of being offended by. If I stub my toe and shout out an expletive in my pain, why precisely is that offensive to you? For no other reason than you’re choosing to be offended. I wasn’t talking to you. The word was not directed at you in any way. It meant nothing and had no purpose other than to make me feel a little better in a moment of pain. So why is your reaction to be offended? Would you react the same way if I’d screamed, “PUPPIES”? No, you wouldn’t, because there’s no reason to be offended by a random sound that weasled it’s way out of my lips and was in no way intended to bother you.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that, like many things, profanity isn’t really something that’s worth getting  worked up over. If someone puts their finger in your face and angrily calls you a horrible name, by all means get mad. But don’t get mad at the word, because the word isn’t the one calling you down. Take a lesson from children and animals: they only hear intent, and you can use the most lovely-sounding, most eloquent words in the English language, but if you say them with rage in your eyes and spit flying out of your mouth, those kids and animals are going to RUN.

In conclusion: words are innocent and meaningless without intent. Save your offense for the people who are genuinely trying to offend you.

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4 thoughts on “The Truth of Profanity

  1. You should see the debates that go on in the Christian fiction circles over profanity in books. It’s insane. There are a few level-headed people in the bunch, but eesh!

    Even as a Christian, I’ve never understood the huge deal about ‘profanity’. My mom would always point out the Scripture where Jesus says “let your yes be yes, and your no be no, don’t swear an oath/make a vow by something you can’t control (ie: by the hair of my head, I swear I will do XYZ…), etc.” And I’d just be like “… that has nothing to do with me saying ‘crap!’ because I’m frustrated. That scripture, in context, is literally about not promising to do something more than you are capable of.” We’d move on to “You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.” And… yeah. I don’t do that. But last I checked. crap was not God’s name… in any religion. Though I could be wrong about that.

    I don’t swear around my mom, though, or at least I try not to. Or my grandparents. Or kids. Because, like you said, we do need to respect other people’s boundaries, and if I know their boundaries and I deliberately push them? That is when the intent behind the words changes, and they become more than innocent.

    However, when you stub your toe, all rules pretty much go flying out the window.

    • I have found, myself, that the religious people tend to be the most firmly against profanity (although of course there are exceptions). One of my husband’s aunts regularly berates people for swearing on Facebook and all I can ever think is, “Hon, maybe the internet isn’t the place for you”.

      On a related note, don’t you love it when religious folk misconstrue scripture to help make the argument they’re trying to make? It’s just about my favorite frustration. 😛

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