The Genteel Guide to Sophisticated Swearing

You can be profane without seeming vulgar

Photo by Samantha Hurley from Burst

Dirty, taboo, vulgar, lewd — all describe the sweary language a gentleman supposedly avoids. Only an uncouth brute uses profanity, or does he? It turns out cursing is a lot more fucking complex than we thought.

We have a fondness for dirty words. They show up everywhere from graffiti on the streets to the halls of academia. There are scholarly works about their importance from philosophers such as Harvard’s Steven Pinker and entertaining books about their origins such as Melissa Mohr’s Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing. Vulgar words are found throughout cultures, dating back centuries. Recently, a set of monastic scrolls from 1528 was discovered in which an irascible monk scribbled ‘fuckin abbot’ in the margin. Movies, books, and television have oodles of sailor talk as well. Tony Montana sauntered across the silver screen in Scarface, peppering his dialog with ‘fucks’ and television’s Deadwood gave viewers the aptly named Al Swearengen with his profligate array of expletives. The Catcher in the Rye became a literary classic, narrated by my favorite foul-mouthed protagonist, Holden Caufield. How can highbrow artistry of page, stage, and screen be filled with such coarse language?

First, we should note there are two types of swears according to Mohr: god swears and bodily orifice swears, or the damns and the dicks. From the holy line of profanities, we get everything from hell to OMG. From the orifice family, we’re treated to assholes, pussies, and shits. We also derive a demure subset of obscenities from both strains, mostly used by teetotalling bible thumpers and wide-eyed midwesterners, such as shoot, gosh, gadzooks. Check out Mohr’s book for a thoroughly entertaining look at our vulgar history.

There is solid science behind the benefits of profanity. Mark Twain once said “When angry, count four. When very angry, swear.” Low and behold, our most beloved American author was on to something. The choice expletive you unleash when you crush your finger with a hammer has something called a hypoalgesic effect. Research into this effect began at Keele University in Staffordshire, England eventually winning psychologist Dr. Richard Stephens a Nobel prize. The basic idea is when you experience pain, let rip with a juicy swear and the emotional and adrenal rush from your profanity mitigates the hurt. Sadly, those of us with salty tongues are less likely to feel any relief at screaming ‘Dammit!’ However, if you’re typically a darn it person, then cursing might be your salve. This effect has been ‘confirmed’ on Mythbusters as well as on Stephen Fry’s Planet World.

Speaking of Mr. Fry, the posh, Cambridge-educated writer, humorist, actor, and all-around smarty-pants loves dirty words. This British Renaissance man once stated, “It would be impossible to imagine going through life without swearing, and without enjoying swearing.” How is it a man renowned for his wit and charm not only condones but encourages such filth? Here, an odd bit of class convention plays out upon our ears.

Once again referencing Mohr’s book, it seems Bourgeois social climbers began monitoring their tongues for propriety during the Victorian era. These bourgie wannabes angled to impress their betters by using prim, socially acceptable utterances. The kicker is the upper class flaunted these very conventions and said any goddamned thing they pleased. Profanity, it seems, is class privilege and the person on the top rung truly has no fucks to give but many to vocalize.

This is all fine and good but isn’t swearing a sign of limited intellect and vocabulary? Au contraire, motherfucker, it’s quite the opposite. A study published in 2014 in the journal ‘Language Sciences’ found that:

“Speakers who use taboo words understand their general expressive content as well as nuanced distinctions that must be drawn to use slurs appropriately. The ability to make nuanced distinctions indicates the presence of more rather than less linguistic knowledge.”

In layperson’s terms, people with filthy mouths are more likely to have better language skills and larger vocabularies. Your cornucopia of four-letter words might mean you’re formidable at Scrabble.

There is a prolific history of the marriage between powerful brains and potty mouths, ranging from US presidents such as FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Obama to famous intellectuals such as Pierre Beaumarchais, who penned ‘The Marriage of Figaro.’ Writers are often notoriously bawdy, with Irvine Welsh, Geoffrey Chaucer, and William bloody Shakespeare all sprinkling their pages with dirty words.

While cursing doesn’t make you lowbrow, you shouldn’t walk around talking like you’re in a Tarantino film. Your language should be digestible to the people around you. You add cayenne pepper for a bit of fire but if you saturate your cooking with it, no one wants to eat with you. Show discretion with your profanity. Think of expletives like jewelry for men, more James Bond less Liberace.

Lenny Bruce once said, “Life is a four-letter word,’ and life is full of fucking, shitting, and damnable calamities. Colorful linguistic flourishes can make your prose more poetic, ease your pain, and demonstrate your uptown credentials.

If you’re still ambivalent as to whether a gentleman may curse, allow this final point. While researching profanity one celebrity repeatedly came up offering advice against it, Bill Cosby. And when Bill Cosby offers you something, you should politely tell him to go fuck himself.

expat, ex-philosopher, ex-entrepreneur writing on society, relationships, & AI singularities. VICE, Salon, & misc humor sites @brianabbey

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