A Philosopher's Blog

Ladies & Swearing

Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 2, 2015
swearing in cartoon Suomi: Kiroileva sarjakuva...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once and future presidential candidate Mike Huckabee recently expressed his concern about the profanity flowing from the mouths of New York Fox News ladies: “In Iowa, you would not have people who would just throw the f-bomb and use gratuitous profanity in a professional setting. In New York, not only do the men do it, but the women do it! This would be considered totally inappropriate to say these things in front of a woman. For a woman to say them in a professional setting that’s just trashy!”

In response, Erin Gloria Ryan posted a piece on Jezebel.com. As might be suspected, the piece utilized the sort of language that Mike dislikes and she started off with “listen up, cunts: folksy as balls probable 2016 Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has some goddamn opinions about what sort of language women should use. And guess the fuck what? You bitches need to stop with this swearing shit.” While the short article did not set a record for OD (Obscenity Density), the author did make a good go at it.

I am not much for swearing. In fact, I used to say “swearing is for people who don’t how to use words.” That said, I do recognize that there are proper uses of swearing.

While I generally do not favor swearing, there are exceptions in which swearing was not only permissible, but necessary. For example, when I was running cross country, one of the other runners was looking super rough. The coach asked him how he felt and he said “I feel like shit coach.” The coach corrected him by saying “no, you feel like crap.” He replied, “No, coach, I feel like shit.” And he was completely right. Inspired by the memory of this exchange, I will endeavor to discuss proper swearing. I am, of course, not developing a full theory of swearing—just a brief exploration of the matter.

I do agree with some of what Huckabee said, namely the criticism of swearing in a professional context. However, my professional context is academics and I am doing my professional thing in front of students and other faculty—not exactly a place where gratuitous f-bombing would be appropriate or even useful. It would also make me appear sloppy and stupid—as if I could not express ideas or keep the attention of the class or colleagues without the cheap shock theatrics of swearing.

I am certainly open to the idea that such swearing could be appropriate in certain professional contexts. That is, that the vocabulary of swearing would be necessary to describe professional matters accurately and doing so would not make a person seem sloppy, disrespectful or stupid. Perhaps Fox News and Jezebel.com are such places.

While I was raised with certain patriarchal views, I have shed all but their psychological residue. Hearing a woman swear “feels” worse than hearing a man swear, but I know this is just the dregs of the past. If it is appropriate for a man to swear, the same right of swearing applies to a woman equally. I’m gender neutral, at least in principle.

Outside of the professional setting, I still have a general opposition to casual and repetitive swearing. The main reason is that I look at words and phrases as tools. As with any tool, they have the suitable and proper uses. While a screwdriver could be used to pound in nails, that is a poor use.  While a shotgun could be used to kill a fly, that is excessive and will cause needless collateral damage. Likewise, swear words have specific functions and using them poorly can show not only a lack of manners and respect, but a lack of artistry.

In general, the function of swear words is to serve as dramatic tools—that is, they are intended to shock and to convey something rather strong, such as great anger. To use them casually and constantly is rather like using a scalpel for every casual cutting task—while it will work, the blade will grow dull from repeated use and will no longer function well when it is needed for its proper task. So, I reserve my swear words not because I am prudish, but because if I wear them out, they will not serve me when I really need them most. For example, if I say “we are fucked” all the time for any minor problem, then when a situation in which we are well and truly fucked arrives, I will not be able to use that phrase effectively. But, if I save it for when the fuck hits the fan, then people who know me will know that it has gotten truly serious—I have broken out the “it is serious” words.

As another example, swear words should be saved for when a powerful insult or judgment is needed. If I were to constantly call normal people “fuckers” or describe not-so-bad things as being “shit”, then I would have little means of describing truly bad people and truly bad things. While I generally avoid swearing, I do need those words from time to time, such as when someone really is a fucker or something truly is shit.

Of course, swear words can also be used for humorous purposes. This is not really my sort of thing, but their shock value can serve well here—to make a strong point or to shock. However, if the words are too worn by constant use, then they can no longer serve this purpose. And, of course, it can be all too easy and inartistic to get a laugh simply by being crude—true artistry involves being able to get laughs using the same language one would use in front of grandpa in church. Of course, there is also an artistry to swearing—but that is more than just doing it all the time.

I would not dream of imposing on others—folks who wish to communicate normally using swear words have every right to do so, just as someone is free to pound nails with a screwdriver or whittle with a scalpel. However, it does bother me a bit that these words are being dulled and weakened by excessive use. If this keeps up, we will need to make new words and phrases to replace them—and then, no doubt, new words to replace those.


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7 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on February 2, 2015 at 9:39 am

    Double standard. Is a man allowed to use the c-word around women? Answer: no, because he will be accused of sexual harassment.

    Remember when tough lawyer Anita Hill needed a fainting couch because Clarance Thomas made a joke about a hair on a Coke can?

    Remember a couple of months ago when the feminists went berserk over a scientist’s shirt?

    Either women are tough and independent, or they are frail and need protection. Pick one.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 2, 2015 at 10:01 am

      Good points. The right to swear would seem to run up against the sexual harassment concern, given that so many swear words are linked to sex. There is also the fact that swearing could be regarded as a form of harassment.

  2. Mark Corder said, on February 3, 2015 at 2:15 pm

    I appreciate your comments on this topic and must say that I agree with you – I’ve been trying to minimize my own swearing because it’s overuse does seem to dilute it’s “magic”. But it raises a fundamental question that I’ve been curious about for years: Why do we have a certain set of words that are “forbidden” or otherwise off-limits in common speech?

    Calling it “swearing” seems odd – when you swear to tell the truth in court, isn’t that “swearing” too? (Or do you need to say “I swear to tell the whole fuckin’ truth” to make that happen?) I think that calling them “curse words” is hitting closer to the historic truth behind the matter. It was once believed that words had actual cosmic power, as in spells and incantations that could have a literal, physical effect on the world. Speaking the names of deities could invoke them, so they were referred to in terms like “He who cannot be named”. It seems to me that our modern day class of “profane” words are a holdover from this belief that certain words can invoke some kind of outside magic to occur. But when you look at a list of these current “forbidden” words, few of them seem to actually be religious in nature. Most of them seem to be either sexual (fuck) or derogatory (bitch), and sometimes a combination of both (bastard).

    So to me, the more profound question isn’t “why do we swear”, but “why do we have a class of words that are considered as such”?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 4, 2015 at 2:33 pm

      Good question.

      In my own case, I use an analogy between language and tools. Just as there are tools designed for specific purposes, words also serve those purposes. So, for example, weapons are used to harm people. In the case of swear words, I have them for their special functions: shock, expressing anger, humor and so on.

      But as far as why we, as a species, have such words-I’ll have to leave that to the anthropologists.

  3. adaptorcry said, on February 3, 2015 at 9:23 pm

    Swearing from either gender is not appropriate in public.

  4. ajmacdonaldjr said, on February 4, 2015 at 4:40 pm

    “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” ~ St. Paul

  5. Ronny Plachecki said, on December 18, 2016 at 12:32 am

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