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The Sacred and the Profane

August 7, 2011

As you know, reader of mine, I fucking love profanities. The sound of them, the heft and texture of them in my mouth, the effect they have on older people and conservative types and older conservative type people. All those single syllables and hard Teutonic consonants, mmm. And the cognates, my god, the cognates!

Every language has swears. Our brains are programmed to create and enforce taboos. We love ascribing magical powers to certain words. We love the delicious horrible thrill of hearing those words or seeing them in print or, best of all, saying them. We have, in other words, a natural human desire to eff the ineffable.

The other day a friend posted a telling photo on Facebook. Somewhere in his neighbourhood, “Fuck You” had been chalked onto the sidewalk in the innocent hyper-rounded script of a maybe 10-year-old girl. Kids today, right?

That photo made me sad. Not because the girl had an “attitude.” Not because the kids of the 21st century are terrible and are going to ruin the world with their comparative laziness, selfishness, stupidity, obesity, lack of respect, and so on. No, it was sad because it reflected the slow decline in taboo status that swear words have been suffering. The power is draining from our profanities, and nobody seems to care. A quarter-century ago, it would have been inconceivable for a kid to write that word at all, let alone in a public space. Back then, the F-word was the most powerful word in existence. The S-, P-, B-, D-, and H-words were not far behind. Kids would start overhearing these words and becoming aware of their significance (if not their meanings) at around age four or five. By grade one or two, everyone knew them all. But nobody went around saying them. They were terrifyingly magical. We all remember the first time we said a swear–almost always out of anger or by accident, before consciousness or reason intervened–in the presence of an adult. The shame of it, the swift and furious fallout…

Although I was a silent, excruciatingly obedient kid, horrified and mystified by the whirlpool of poor behaviour that swirled around me at day care and school, I’m sure I’ve always loved swear words. At some point when I was around five years old I became obsessively curious about them, but there was, of course, nobody I could talk to about it. I didn’t understand how they worked, how they made people so angry and uncomfortable. They were only words. They didn’t even seem to mean anything. Really they were just sounds. What would it feel like to say one? My fascination became overwhelming one fine winter morning at a downtown mall. Giving in to the obscure compulsion that had been nagging at me, I leaned over and whispered “Fucking asshole” to my four-year-old brother. God only knew where I’d heard that expression. My mom didn’t swear and my dad tended to limit himself to softcore profanity: “hell” and “damn.” My brother kept eating his lunch, had no visible reaction. I wasn’t calling him a fucking asshole. I didn’t know what a “fucking asshole” was. I was just saying it. Anyway, kids tend to be kind of sub-par at whispering, and despite our having been parked in the middle of a loud, packed food court, my mom heard me and flipped out in a way that I hadn’t seen her flip out since the day a few months earlier when I’d used the expression “pissed off” (having mistakenly concluded, based on context clues, that it was just a synonym for “really annoyed”).

Even in upper elementary school there was what I now think of as a quaint thrill in seeing the word “shit” in a novel or hearing a friend’s parent say “hell.” When I encountered “whore” for the first time reading To Kill a Mockingbird in grade seven, I had to look it up in the dictionary, and it didn’t help because I didn’t understand the definition.

What the hell has happened to our beloved profanities of yesteryear? We’ve really only got two left that have any firepower, the C-word and the N-word, and no decent human being would ever ever ever ever EVER say the N-word in any context that didn’t involve rapping along with a favourite Jay-Z song and making damn sure to end the second syllable with a schwa, and even in that situation the decent person would probably still feel vaguely guilty. That word is too racial, too political, too specific. It’s not in the same category as good old “fuck,” which you can use pretty much anywhere, any time. So that leaves the C-word, whose energy is bleeding out (oh god! pun totally unintended!!!) at an alarming rate and appears to be headed in the direction of its fallen comrades. (The first time I said “cunt” was in front of my grandparents, but that’s an anecdote for another time. I maintain that I honestly did not believe my babysitter earlier that day when she told me it was a real swear. It sounded like a nonsense syllable that she made up at the spur of the moment to try to make me think there was a word I didn’t know. If there’d been an internet in those days, the scene would have ended differently.)

It wouldn’t bother me that 20th-century swears were becoming impotent if other words were gaining unspeakability at a proportionate speed. But I can’t think of a single word that’s more offensive today than it was when I was a kid. Minorities have begun immediately appropriating the hateful terminology that gets aimed at them. Rules about what you can say on TV are getting more inclusive all the time. The definition of any word can be found online, and you can always do an image search if you want more information.

The conservative types are becoming more and more liberal; the older people are going to die first. The 10-year-old who wrote “Fuck You” on the sidewalk is a product of her time. Her childhood is a tragedy. Imagine, at that tender age, having no reverence for the eff curse. Imagine being able to write that phrase in sidewalk chalk without a second thought. Nothing is sacred for the “Fuck You” 10-year-old. Her eyes will never widen as they catch the word “bitch” in a young adult novel. She has already mastered the alchemy of curses; her misguided and occasionally irresponsible babysitter can teach her nothing. Twenty years from now, what will our precious children whisper to one another in the Cornwall Centre food court?

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 7, 2011 7:06 pm

    As I remember it, there was an empty lot at the end of our street in 1960s southeast Burnaby, overgrown with bushes and honeycombed with footpaths. In grade two, I used to walk five or so blocks to school with my friend Johnny from across the street, just the two of us, as children did then, quite safely. The only warnings of danger were to be sure to look both ways before crossing, and never to walk through the empty lot because “there are perverts in there”. Of course, Johnny and I ALWAYS walked through the empty lot. It was just too way cool, even though we never saw any perverts, nor were we perverts ourselves (as long as you don’t count playing doctor occasionally in Johnny’s basement). What we did was swear. We had no idea what the words meant, but we would walk along, carrying our little “Leave It To Beaver” or whatever lunch pails, saying aloud forbidden words. “Shit.” “Fuck.” “Asshole.” “Bitch.” Yes, even “Hell.” Since we didn’t know what the words meant, there were no colourful inflections. It was like we were reading slowly from the Dictionary of Forbidden Words. It was so exciting! We didn’t yet know ‘cunt’, and the N-word was not yet forbidden at that time. (Back then it was “Eenie meenie mynie moe, catch a [n-word] by the toe”, and no parent or teacher ever scolded us for singing it that way.)

    I feel so sorry for the kids these days, who will never get to wander through pervert-infested parks and recite forbidden words, for there are seemingly few left to recite.

    While we’re on the subject of swearing, what’s with “frick” and “frack”? On Battlestar Galactic, there was hardly a line in the script that didn’t have Kara Thrace (or almost everyone else in the show) saying “frack you!” or “get out of this fracking cargo bay, now!” Why is “fuck” bad but “frack” good? They mean essentially the same thing, they sound similar, why is one acceptable on public television and the other bleeped? Imagine if Tiny Fey called Tracy Morgan a “negger”. (Impressive sitcom reference for someone so pop-culturally illiterate, no?)

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