Saturday, June 11, 2011

Bad Language: The F-word

Weary of the ubiquitous and seemingly obligatory use of the F-word in films and other media, I was happy to encounter the playwright Jonathan Holmes, writing last month in the Independent, who asserts what I have long known: our cussin' ain't what it used to be.

The age of Shakespeare did it with style. How poor, by contrast, our educated classes have become at the noble art of insult, writes Holmes. The Jacobeans in the early 17th cent. knew how to hurl insults ("you whoreson, flea-bitten loon") that did more than repeat a once-shocking sexual slur. Being part of a Christian culture, they could attack the soul and body, invoking God and the devil, commenting on the corruption of the world in the process. To call someone a faithless dog was to target the interior life of the one being cursed, notes Holmes, his or her very being.

Today, by contrast, we live in a secular culture in which "Goddamn" and other forms of traditional profanity (taking the name of God in vain, I was taught) are less often used because they don't have the punch or shock value they once had, even 50 years ago (note the language of Arthur Miller's characters compared with those of David Mamet). The English use "bloody" (presumably from the medieval curse "by our Lady" that makes no sense in a secular culture or even in church circles any more); it was one of the euphemisms for religious oaths (like heck for hell, etc.).

So our bad language is reduced for the most part to crude, sexual terms that tend, as in the case of fuck, to be drained by overuse of their original meaning, as in "you're fuckin' beautiful." It's tough, colorful, masculine street talk that has made its way into The New Yorker and other high-toned publications for understandable reasons.

Why? Because it fits--most of the time. It captures the language many people use. Kathryn Schulz explains in a recent New York magazine piece. Rather than being insulted as many women were in the earlier days of feminism by the violence of the word, she contends that writers use this expletive not because they're lazy or wish to shock or have run out of alternatives: sometimes the four-letter word is the best one. It has, apparently, lost much of its sexual shock value.

Quoting John Lanchester, Schulz compares three words: the French-originated debacle, the Italian fiasco , and the American fuck-up. In many contexts, the last one is not obscene, just the most appropriate to capture the speech of a contemporary character in a story, play, film, etc. "Fuckin'" has never been a word I use, but lately, in certain company, given a certain level of anger, it comes out and seems right. It's liberating. But, like other types of slumming, I don't want to overdo it.

Schulz continues: she knew that using the f-word in one of her books would upset some (many) readers, who would have moral, religious, or cultural objections to the language and stop reading. But she also knew that serious literature should sometimes present just such difficulties, raise such questions. "Surely one of the chief pleasures of literature is that it urges us into unfamiliar terrain..."

But wait: the whole point of using the f-word is to capture a pervasive (some might say excessively pervasive) form of street language, with that tough tone that can only come with the use of one of the many, many forms of this word. So many, that it is anything but unfamiliar; it has become at times mind-numbingly overly familiar.

I conclude this excursion into what used to be an obscene (not strictly profane) usage by noting that any language that's appropriate in a given context is right, that there is, then, no such thing as "bad language," if well used by mature people who know what they're doing. I'm thinking mainly of adults who write.

For a Midwesterner, religiously schooled, seldom exposed to much "bad language," I see how far I have come in the past 40 years to accept the reality of an ever-evolving language in which that once-shocking f-word is sometimes funny, sometimes good. I still urge caution in its use.

And I still would prefer Shakespearean curses to this impoverished vocabulary of ours in which cursing is, strictly speaking, impossible.

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