Saturday, September 04, 2010

Stupid Language Games

Americans are afraid of words, especially the angl0-saxon ones having to do with sex or the tools one uses to do it. It's a juvenile fascination with the forbidden -- tell a joke with the word "butt" in it to a room full of five-year-olds and listen to the giggles. When it comes to the bad words, we are nation of five year olds. Or old ladies.


George Carlin's Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV? Still can't use half of them, except on premium cable. I also like Carlin's line,"You can prick your finger, but you better not finger your prick ..."

So instead of staying "fuck" when you mean to use the coarse term for "fornicate," you'll see the family paper or newsmagazine change it to "f ---," or worse, to (expletive deleted). As in, 'Go "(expletive deleted) yourself, you (expletive deleted.)'

If you write ef-blank-blank-blank instead of "fuck," there's not a person in the country over age five or six who doesn't know what you mean.

F--k? Um ... fire truck ... ? Why would you say you don't give a fire truck?

Ever see a picture of somebody holding up a middle finger and have that finger blurred? Network TV and basic cable both do that. They bleep The Daily Show and nobody is fooled. Basketball games, you don't need to be much of a lip-reader to realize those athletic fellows are cursing like, well, basketball players.

I mean, come on, how stupid is that, to blur or bleep a finger on TV? People going to stop watching TV if they see somebody giving somebody the finger? Will "damn," or "piss" or "fuck" cause whole towns to drop dead of mortification? Send granny or little Tommy round the bend forever?

Today's paper, a column on riding the bus. The writer, restricted in her language, points out that a passenger is wearing a hat with the line "Stuff happens." on it. Only, she says, it's not "stuff," but a word like it and not something she can use in the paper.

Is there anybody capable of reading that article who doesn't know that the word she's cleverly telling us without actually saying it is "shit?"

I'm a writer, and I know words have power, but only as much as somebody is willing to give them. This puritanical horror of "bad" language is, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid. Anybody who thinks that if little Tommy hears the f-word (and, oh, yeah, I'm talking about "fuck," here) he's going to run looking for some heroin to shoot up before he goes on a killing spree is madder than the Hatter and the March Hare. You don't think he hears little Billy and Susie saying "Fuck!" on the school ground every day? You need to get out more.

Google the word "fuck," you get one hundred and thirty-three million hits.

Get over it, America. That fucking ship has sailed.


Ed said...

I don't think it's a puritanical thing for a lot of people. It just sounds like shit to hear it all the time out of someones usually is spewing out in a negative way that gets old listening to it/them.

Ian SADLER said...

I feel sorry for people who have to rely on 'fuck' to complete their sentences.

The English language is rich enough, without resorting to 'fuck' all the time.

But one of my funniest movie quotes is "the fucking fucker's fucking fucked".

To be said with rich irish accent, making fuck into fock...

Share and enjoy.

Anonymous said...

The words in and of themselves, don't matter as much to me as the reason that they are used so much today. i think that a lot writers overuse swearing for shock/ entertainment value. Expletives have almost become a lazy writers crutch. Sometimes coarse language can be appropriate and necessary for the story. (Are you going to write an episode of the Sopranos without swearing?) I would really like some wit or plot or humor instead the f-bomb going off yet again. Ed is right it gets old fast. Langdon

Steve Perry said...

One of Twain's rules is, use the right word, not its second cousin. This doesn't mean you need to spew it over and over, but that using it and pretending that you didn't is silly. Hit your finger with a hammer, you probably won't say, "Oh, fudge! Oh, drat!" And if you do, you are doing it because of a fear of something that can't really hurt you or anybody else.

If you are writing dialog between two young soldiers walking guard duty and talking about getting drunk and laid, chances are you are going to hear language that the Sunday school teacher doesn't offer to her class of nine-year-olds.

If you are writing for adults but you pitch it to please the Sunday school class?

I'm not saying you should plaster your child's wall with porno, but how hard is it to answer your six-year-old's question:

Daddy, what does "fuck" mean?"

Well, son, it's a word for sex. But it upsets some people to hear it, so it's best if you don't use it in school or church or when you are visiting Grandma okay?

If you spend any time trying to dance around the bad words, even if you are a good writer, it sounds contrived. In SF circles, the "Great Asimov!" or "Holy Heinlein!" stuff lies there on the floor and whines, because for so long, no curse words were allowed.

What you can do is come up with new swear words and try to make them work in context, but there are always going to be literary equivalents of the genuine ones out there.

I recall the first time I saw "fuck" in a novel. I couldn't believe it. And it was exactly what needed to be there.

Sure, if you are good enough, you can get around it, and sometimes it's fun:

Dear Dad,

I've been hanging out with a Spanish count, please send money.

Dear Son,

Not a dime until you learn how to spell.

But while inappropriate overuse of the anglo-saxon is lazy speech and/or writing, leaving it out when it is appropriate is also bad. Too much pepper kills the entree. A dash of spice makes the dish -- if you never use an seasoning, the food can be way too bland.

jks9199 said...

I recall reading something about Bill Cosby, as he discussed the top black comics of the day. (This was several years ago; they included Eddie Murphy, among others.) He talked about how, once, a comic in trouble on stage would "drop his drawers" and go to dirty words or sex jokes because it was guaranteed to get a laugh -- even if the laugh was just a nervous titter. But, he said, with so many comedians already starting there for their jokes -- where did they have to go?

It's also worth emphasizing that language has to be appropriate to both the character and the situation. Richard Pryor spoke differently differently than Bill Cosby. Words that fit one person would be inappropriate in the other's mouth. Like Steve said -- if the dialog is between two beat cops, it's gonna sound very different than those same cops talking to a prosecutor...

Steve Perry said...

Sure, and I loved Bill Cosby's early stand-up routines. Custer's last stand. Aftershave lotion. Funny, funny stuff. But he was aiming at a family audience. Pryor's audience was adult and much more streetwise. And Pryor was funny on network TV, so it wasn't as if he had to resort to calling folks niggahs and muthahfuckahs to get laughs. It was part of who he was to do it that way, and it worked. Guy who can do a routine that has you peeing yourself laughing about having a heart-attack or setting himself on fire smoking crack? That's funny.

I've told the Eddie Murphy story -- Murphy got a call from Bill Cosby, who took him to task for doing blue humor. Murphy was upset, so he called Richard Pryor. Pryor said, "Was it funny? Did they laugh?" Murphy said, yeah. "Well, then tell Bill to have a Coke and a smile and go fuck himself."

Those words simply wouldn't have the power to titillate if we weren't largely a Puritan-based culture. By allowing the language to seem unwholesome, it gains juice it really doesn't rate.

Backtrack the feeling about why the language bothers you. See where it goes, you wind up at Hester Prynne's door, I'm telling you.

Thirty years ago, I wrote a letter to Time Magazine. They had an article with a quote, and the f-word rendered with dashes. They also had several pictures of bodies on a battlefield somewhere.

A word, four letters. A pile of corpses slaughtered in war. No question in my mind which was obscene.

First published piece I ever had was a letter to the U's newspaper, forty-five years ago. While I was in college, Playboy magazine was banned from campus. But right next to the magazine rack was a cigarette machine, and they left it there. Still there when I left college, and long after the Surgeon General's Report of 1964 that said -- I paraphrase here a bit -- Cigarettes will kill your dumb ass, don't fucking smoke!

You couldn't buy an airbrushed skin mag -- and this was in the pre-beaver days -- but you could buy as many coffin nails as you could afford.

My value system is simple. I can't recall the statistics on how many people have died from seeing a bare titty in a magazine, but I can tell you that a whole lot of people have shuffled off from smoking cigarettes.

Where's the greater harm here?

heina said...

I'm going to have to agree with Ed here that this is not purely puritanical.

I HIGHLY recommend you go grab a copy (Kindle maybe) of Steven Pinker's THE STUFF OF THOUGHT (language as a window into human nature.)

He points out all sorts of amazing linguistic bases for "bad words." Most curse words have to do with bodily fluids but they are different among cultures. Most notably you can say fuck in the UK but bloody is considered unacceptable. Fluids.

He talks a lot about movement in time. Why do we "wait up" and "slow down". Why is time directional? Where does this break down? Is it cross cultural? Universal?

But you can skip to chapter 7 - The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television.

I heard him give a lecture on this. Was rolling in the aisles.

Dan Moran said...

My 14 year old managed to bust up a whole van full of people ranging from 8 to 50 with a story that ended with the line "Fuck no, Gandalf!"

I don't believe in protecting people from language. While I don't use "nigger" myself, and won't let my kids use it, we do let them watch "Boondocks," which uses it liberally. Beyond that, it's possible my eight year old doesn't know the word "cunt" because I don't use it, but I'm quite sure there are no other swear words he doesn't know.

I'm also perfectly comfortable telling them not to use my bad language around me. Social hypocrisy is useful as long as you don't invest undue energy into it. I don't care that much if they control their speech around me, really, but I do want them with enough filters on their behavior to recognize that certain words are fucking well influenced by context ....

Bobbe Edmonds said...

My short story "A Matter of Time" was rejected from a certian publication because of my liberal use of profanity, particularly from one of the central characters. I was told that if I cleaned up the language, it would be more acceptable for publication.

The thing is, language is the ONLY thing we have to communicate with, as writers. We can paint scenes, horrify the reader with situational incidents, or elevate the underdog in a last-second change of heart...But having a nun utter a loud "Fuck" on a crowded subway raises INTEREST in a character. It makes them human. It makes them real.

And the character in my story has plenty of reasons to say it; He's an embittered, alcoholic genius trapped in a dead, loveless marriage who cannot, under any circumstances, achieve the renown and fame he should have for his invention...Because he's already made a stupid, irreversible mistake with it.

The word "Fuck" figures quite frequently in his vocabulary...As I notice that it does with many who are in his kind of situation. I didn't just pull that out of a hat - I listened to my wife one night when she came home from her high stress accounting job in an office with a bunch of backstabbing hens who love to gossip more than work. Then I counted how many times she said "Fuck" that evening.

52 times. I still have the original sheet of paper I counted on. Even my wife couldn't believe she really did that.

Profanity, on any social level, is real. It doesn't have to be blatantly in your face,and it's not necessarily subtle either. It's just always been there ever since someone said "You shouldn't say that...It's a bad word."