Friday, April 25, 2014

"What the #*?/%#!!"

When I was a student, I worked summers for a mosquito abatement district in the San Joaquin valley.  My daily work put me in contact with workers of all types - and in that world swearing was an art form.  I heard the most creative swear word combinations possible!  I recall one old wino that came to us everyday hoping for a handout. He managed to work some heavy duty swearing into every sentence he used.  

Actually swearing falls into a few predictable categories.

Swear words can be religious - dealing with God, Jesus, Mary, Heaven, and Hell...  I suspect that some of this swearing was originally said as prayers by highly religious people - asking for help in a troubling situation.  Sometimes the holy figure is asked to curse  the person causing the problem.  Historically, I suspect there was a time that this was a attempt to call down a serious curse.  Now, we culturally are not so much into calling curses down on peoples heads.

Other swear words deal with bodily functions - mostly about excrement.  These are curious. I suppose this is to associate something bad with something dirty. This I suspect  is a holdover from childhood when potty talk was considered naughtily ‘bad’  - shocking to parents, adults, and other kids. Also curious that such expletives are found in many cultures and languages.  They are often drawn own with great expression.

Then there are the swear words that deal with sex... An interesting category! Why would you relate sex to swearing about something bad that has happened?  I suspect that most sex swearing is about imposing control over the other person.  Some is about threatening the other person with your power....sometimes they taunt or insult the other person.    Sex swearing often has a strong element of macho challenge about it ( but its also curious that this has been adopted by more and more women today) .

Then there are some very old cultural terms that are simply statements of annoyance.  'Darn', 'Heck', 'Baloney'. Some of these mild terms were adopted by more puritanical folks who felt that the stronger words were not very ‘couth’ or ‘irreligious’... "Gol durn'!

What is interesting to me is why some people swear and others don't.   I grew up in a home where people didn't swear.  I learned all the words at school or working, I’m sure that I experimented with them to be ‘cool’ - but they didn't become part of my life style.  Also I had a profession  (high school science teacher) where active swearing in front of the students was frowned on.

I  became aware that  few of the people that I associate with today swear.  Or at least it has become more specific - I hear constant references to God in teen-talking - (and I suspect it is not a prayer)... But it seems like I hear much less swearing than I once did...(maybe its just the people I hang out with these days).

I think most swearing is simply a habitual response - something that you dont like happens - so you swear... you get angry at someone and you swear... there is no real function to swearing - and not swearing is just as effective in defusing emotion as letting loose with an emotional stream.

I think many people swear because they think it  is expected of them - it is “manly” or “shocking” to swear... it sends the message “dont mess with me because I’m ‘bad’”.  Among more educated people today I hear little swearing -  It is also interesting that very fewer women use ‘heavy duty swearing - Is this because they dont want to communicate what swearing stands for in our culture...  Does women's changing identify in our society affect swearing pattens?

People who swear often say that it is a necessary way to release tension when something 'bad' happens.  I doubt that this is really effective.  People that I know who swear are just as upset after letting loose as they were before - maybe more so... 

Swearing seems to have a long tradition - The Bible warns “ if you mean yes say yes, if you mean no say no... nothing more”  Swear word graffiti is found on the walls of Pompeii, There are explicative in Hindi, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, Italian... But patterns of swearing seems to rise and fall in common culture.

And then there are those people that say - I save up my swearing for those special situations when I am really upset - then people know that I am seriously annoyed!  Which calls to mind the "cried wolf" effect - if someone swears habitually for every little thing - how are you going to know that a situation  is serious?

So pay attention to the swearing you hear around you - ask yourself why they swear? ...what does it communicate? whom?