By William Paplham
Swearing is valuable, swearing is powerful. But what becomes of “fuck” and “shit” when a fundamental
source of their power has withered? In a shrugging tolerance built on gross overexposure, the English
language has been fast losing its ability to shock, and it is rearing its head on the cultural vernacular.
Consider the ordinarily innocuous “moron,” “imbecile,” and “idiot”: all were once used as IQ indicators –
until they became appropriated as colloquial slang, and lost their precise connotations in favor of
inexpressive interchangeability. “Retarded” moved in – and then quickly out, becoming so tactlessly
prevalent that currently “mentally disabled” has replaced “mentally retarded.” And even now we await
the next hop of the Politically Correct to outpace the vanguard slang.
For “fuck,” its powers have likewise loosened. To address the question of the word’s seemingly
paradoxical vulgarity posed in the ‘WTF’ article, its definition is still rooted in penetration, but, in
contrast to “making love” or “shagging,” it remains superlatively crass since power-play colors it
connotation. In “fucking,” ‘A’ does not have sex with ‘B’; it is not a venture where the process is
necessarily joint. ‘A’ fucks ‘B.’ Could be consensual and cooperative – could very well not be. And in a
related expression: if ‘A’ fucks ‘B’ up, the violence has received a direct object to act upon, again
informing the uncouth aggressiveness of the word.
“C*nt” is an exponential “bitch”; never mind its meaning of female genitalia, the word still holds clout in
America as the king (queen?) of vulgarity. “Fuck him, fuck her, fuck this and that,” sure; but if you call
someone a “c*nt,” you place the person – a female, normatively – at the surliest form of contempt.
And “nigger”: the formidable term is manacled to a legacy of caste repression; while “nigga” squirms
amidst a cultural appropriation war; and “Negro” endures as an outmoded word to which some older
generations still self-identify; and “thug” straddling an evolving connotation of broad criminality into
But all of these words – and I didn’t even touch on religious blasphemies – have taken a hit in their ability
to jolt. Western language censorship has radically shriveled though the past half-century, proliferating the
pastiche of freewheeling TV and silver screen hot shots with profane, snappily quotable lines. But no
matter – freedom of speech denotes a free-for-all. Right?
If the pragmatics play out to idealization, the answer is actually no. The very nature of a “swear” is to
make a heartfelt, weighty pledge; analogously, “swear words” are an affirmation of weighty sentiment.
Since: I don’t want a hamburger, I want a goddamn fine hamburger. No wait, a goddamn son of a fucking
bitch fine hamburger. And hopefully what one means by this is that you really really want a quality
hamburger. And, I suppose, that’ll do. But if you brush your “goddamn son of a fucking bitch fine” teeth
and spread “goddamn son of a fucking bitch fine” cream cheese on your “goddamn son of a fucking bitch
fine” bagel, then what the hell’s the point of such words? How do they serve your meaning? So they put
acerbic luster in your tongue; but so too shall people come to stop responding to the words, cease treating
them as having any meaning other than your penchant for linguistic fillers and perfunctory intensifiers.
If you’re “fucking angry” every single day, how do you express exceptional anger? With more colorful
language, I suppose. But many if not most of the prospective words – possibly bigoted, sexist, crude
words like “prick,” “c*cksucker,” “motherfucker,” “fag,” and “c*nt” – will very likely hold little weight
with your audience. They’ll know you’re mad, but only by the sheer tautology of your insipid cursing
Swearing is valuable, swearing is powerful; it has a place in society and right to that place. But words
ooze meaning, and swear words command gravity. Truly, some people mightily easily offend, but always
remember that swear words inherit their fundamental power from people’s judge-y squeamish offense, or
at least recognition of such offensiveness. Which is why I suggest, brandish them shrewdly. Since what’s
a swear word used all the time? Effectively, just a word, devoid of their blowing gravity. So say whatever
you want – since, freedom, y’all – but I recommend the hell out of frugality since it is this very filter of
discretion that lends them power in the first place.