Quite often, I am confronted with the idea that swearing somehow mitigates one’s intelligence — or at the very least, one’s ability to eloquently communicate. And to be perfectly honest, that’s a pretty damn arrogant position to take.
And I confess, I swear a lot. Like a lot. I would go so far as to say that I swear gratuitously and obnoxiously, perhaps immaturely. In high school, it got me into some uncomfortable situations with teachers and headmasters and the like.
I’ve listened to a dozen cases detailing why I should restrain myself. It’s uncouth, it’s offensive, it shocks the old people and it’s absolutely unladylike. And upon acknowledging those premises as acceptable consequences for my behavior, I’m always treated to the most high-minded of appeals: Swearing is a discredit to one’s self, and one’s capability as an articulate speaker.
But why should we perceive expletives as having a direct relationship to a person’s intelligence? Maybe it’s for the same reason that obscenities are unacceptable in formal writing — they’re too vulgar, too uncivilized for sophisticated communication. They belong amongst people with no need to impress anything upon anyone; they belong amongst people who know no better words to express their thoughts. But of course that lays the groundwork for the annoyingly common assumption that all “sophisticated” communication comes in MLA or APA format.
Perhaps it is because we so strongly associate cursing with a loss of higher functions, with deeply emotional outbursts of uncontrollable dimensions. Swearing certainly has a place in such situations. So perhaps choosing not to use expletives is a measure of one’s self-control or self-awareness. If you are really, truly, intellectually in possession of yourself, then you will articulate even the strongest of emotions with a matter of decorum befitting your mental capacity. Why, when we are extremely angry, should it be acceptable to say, “I’m so fucking mad right now”? One could easily say instead: “I am irate,” “I am incensed,” “I am unhinged with wrath.” What exactly is the point of bringing vulgarity into the matter?
The point is, that that’s not what I fucking mean. Don’t sit in an ivory tower of polysyllables and play too pure for profanity. My choice to swear can tell you as much about my frame of mind as a choice not to. Choosing to curse is about exactly what every other form of verbal communication is about — the right word, the right connotation. I am not incensed — I’m not some repressed Victorian maiden. I am not irate or livid, like some 18th century wig-wearing politician.
Swearing is incredibly expressive and nuanced in a way that only colloquial or casual language can be, and moreover it is accessible. It can pinpoint very specific emotions and moods that are sometimes inaccessible via conventional vocabulary. Glibness, sarcasm, irony — these tones which are so easily expressed informally — and yes, explicitly — are too often impossible to decipher in “proper” writing styles.
Expletives can be a more accurate, clear and efficient use of language than any other single category of words. They state directly the thought of a precise moment. They articulate that for which we have no acceptable equivalent, because they indicate those things that we do not accept. Shit, fuck, damn — they exclaim those things that our society has collectively rejected, and transform them into an expression of self-in-a-moment. The fact that these taboos are snobbishly excluded from the lexicon of the prestigious and well mannered does not strip them of their significance, but rather emphasizes it. Not all conversations ought to be genteel.
Eloquent communication is about far more than exacting definitions and well-planned explanations. We so often deride non-intellectual language as vernacular, ordinary or unremarkable. And yet as a platform for the clear expression of ideas or feelings to a broad audience, colloquialism is unparalleled. Swearing is certainly a tool of the “lower” language, but the idea that that lower language has no place in intelligent discussion is absurd.
Contact Maximiliana Bogan at ebogan ‘at’ stanford.edu