In the “it bears repeating” department, I’m dusting off my soapbox on the subject of language. First, a reminder is in order: The Oxford English Dictionary lists more than 250,000 distinct words in our language, not to mention all the technical, scientific and slang terms.
Then, when one begins to meld words into phrases and sentences, the pure mathematics of all the ways to express oneself are staggering. It’s precisely those combinations that are so rich, so meaningful, so emotional:
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach…” ~Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“Pierced by shards of shattered glass, deeper and deeper you stab me with lies and venomous words – dissecting my heart piece by piece, crushed like the petals of a withered rose.” ~Jan Allison
These excerpts are so descriptive with nary a curse word in sight. With the near-limitless choices in language, I must ask: Why is it necessary to pepper – sometimes heavily – speech and writing with profanity?
A few years ago, I attended a program where the two presenters were quick to admit “we use coarse language,” explaining that it was a way to connect with their “demographic.”
I found that quite the bold assumption – that a commonality within a particular group of peers was their proclivity for profanity. Even their company logo included a curse word with part of the word blanked out. As journalist Carl Bernstein (think Watergate) wrote, “For the first time, the weird and the stupid and the coarse are becoming our cultural norms, even our cultural ideal.”
And David Morrell, in his book “The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing,” wrote, “Two things happen when I read this junk: I get bored, and I get angry. I didn’t pick up your book to read garbage. If this is as clever as you can be, I don’t want to read your prose.”
As one who literally writes for a living, I have come to love the language. My ears hurt when a good story is ruined with obscenity.
Granted, there might be more to it. Author Benjamin Bergen, reporting in a Sept. 13, 2016, story for Time wrote, “Profane words…are unequaled in their capacity to inflict emotional pain and incite violent disagreement. They’re the words that provoke the most repressive regulatory reactions from the state in the form of censorship and legislation. In short, bad words are powerful – emotionally, physiologically, psychologically and socially.”
In discussing the language of profanity, Bergen asserts that profanity arises from a different part of the brain than language itself. This “swearing central” comes from our limbic system – buried deep within our brains – “that we share with primates and other animals where they are responsible for emotional calls, shrieks, cries and growls,” Bergen says.
Nevertheless, with so many words at their disposal, I suspect neither Roget nor Webster ever felt compelled to announce a resolution to “swear off profanity” – pardon the pun. Or as the great philosopher, Anonymous, once remarked, “Profanity is for those who lack the vocabulary or the imagination to otherwise express themselves.”
And with that, I’ll put away my soapbox – until next time, that is.