Swearing’s Place in Language

Over the last week, I had a debate with one of my coworkers over the nature of swearing. My coworker’s stance was squarely in the ballpark of “swearing is unintelligent and has no place in the English language”. That is not a direct quote, but it is the gist of the argument. I am on the opposing side that says profanity does have a place in language, and not just because I have a foul mouth. I think it’s important, even a little rhetorical, to note that none of this is based on fact, just opinion and what I observe, because, well… how can any of this be fact?

The first point she brought up is its overuse, and weirdly enough, I somewhat agree with her. Profanity has a place, definitely, and when used out of place it gives both the speaker and the subject the wrong image. It also gives profanity the wrong image by association. When excessively used it does have a rather distasteful effect, and in the context where it is used excessively it is commonly for the purpose of expressing an unintelligent idea. When used in excess the profanity gives the image of an unintelligent argument.

I don’t believe that profane words have an inherent unintelligent quality to them. Swear words are like any tool, it is all about context and use. This also ties in with the excessive use argument, in the sense that these two things are commonly used in conjunction to express an unintelligent idea. I am not saying that there aren’t words with connotation, there are. I just don’t think profanity falls under this supposed umbrella. A statement that possesses profanity is not inherently unintelligent because of the profanity. It’s about context; if “fuck” is used in a statement meant to convey anger, then the word will take on an identity of anger. If you use “asshole” in a non-malicious manner or tone, to refer to your friend, then it will likely be perceived as a friendly jibe.

To clarify; a word having a direct meaning and a word yielding an effect in culture are two different things. Swearing, gives a certain weight to your words. When you swear, your tone, expresses a certain level of significance; it gives a sense of severity and gravity. For example, if I were to say, “My boss was very disagreeable and agitating today,” I may get a small amount of sympathy, but the overall response would likely be “Yeah, those are bosses.” My statement may also not convey the emotion I want, or portray my boss in the egregious manner that I believe is accurate. Whereas “My boss acted like a complete asshole today,” may yield a more profound, sympathetic, and engaged response. It may also properly express the magnitude of how much of a jerk my boss was being. The overuse of profane words however robs the statement of any significance you were trying to express. Overuse also robs the profane words of any weight themselves, since they are thrown around as if they are pennies.

There’s also another practical use for swearing; one that I feel is abused a lot, but when used moderately: useful, nonetheless. Swearing creates an idea shorthand. All words are stand-ins for ideas, profanity is no exception. Instead of saying, “My boss acted rude, disrespectful, annoying, loud, unsympathetic, self-centered, and inconsiderate,” I can just simply say, “My boss was acted like an asshole.” You understand the idea, and it’s fast.

There are situations, however, where swearing as shorthand is not always acceptable; situations that require more detail and clarity. For example, if you are in a debate with a person and they begin to behave or say something that seems unethical to you; for you to say “You’re being an asshole,” is not an appropriate response given the situation and “asshole” does not offer any clarity on their inappropriateness of their behaviors. “Asshole” in this context is too ambiguous of a term to serve as commentary on one’s behavior.

The last argument my coworker brought up was the argument of swearing as immoral. Swearing has no inherent morality. It is all about the context of how the word’s use, not because of some inherent immoral attitude the words possess. I say all this because it is a flawed notion to make such a huge value judgement on a person’s intellect, and morality by the simple nature of them swearing. Swearing just needs to be used responsibly.


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