Monday, March 7, 2011

Bad Words: The Cuss You Say

Yesterday, I tallied up the cuss words in Troutzilla. I did this because Steve Brezenoff, a writer whom I admire, had mentioned doing something similar for his forthcoming book, Brooklyn, Burning. It seemed like an interesting project. 

At this point, the total is...

If I trust the counting skills of a Bowdlerian-inspired book reviewer, that's five less than The Freak Observer

I have sometimes heard the argument that cussing indicates a limited vocabulary. The notion is that there most certainly is a "better" word, which a person might use if only they were well-enough educated to wield it. I don't agree. I, myself, use peen, plinth, and persnickity in my daily parlance. When it comes to limits on vocabulary, it's not the vigorous cussers like me and The Fantastic Mr. Fox who are imposing them. 

So what is the origin of the notion that some words are "bad words"? 
Magic, that's what. Language is powerful juice. 
It's not a perfect system, but a quick way of divining "bad" language is to ask, "Is it sacred or profane?"* If the answer is "Yes" then it's magic language. And the use of it is probably offensive to someone. 

Cultural context matters, and there has been some drift over time. 

There was a point where 'swounds or 'sblood was the high-octane stuff. Those words refer to that super-dangerous Medieval over-lapping zone "the sacred body." There is still some nervousness about this concept, which is why nonsense* like "Jeebus on toast points"appears.

David Milch, author of Deadwood, an orchestral masterpiece of cussing, observed that cussing was rife in the period of his story, but he may have taken some liberties with the inflection. More authentic cussing might have been religiously oriented, sacred language made profane by how and when it is uttered.

There is a lot of evasive language* that gets deployed in the interest of avoiding bad words. One of my special favorites is son-of-a-bunny-rabbit. The problem with evasive language is that it is a veil. All of us, you, me and the bunny rabbit hear the unsaid. The magic language sneaks in, wearing an invisibility cloak.

A funny thing about cussing is that it does have at least one genuinely magically property. It is a pain reliever. Go there, read that article in Scientific American and wonder at the human brain, at how it makes language, and how the ancient language of expletives has helped human kind through miserable situations. If you don't have the time, here's the money quote:
"I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear." 
Richard Stevens, research psychologist at Keele University, England.
So, as long as I'm writing realistic fiction about people I know avail themselves of the power of "bad" words, those words are going to continue to appear in my books. To quote Ellsworth of Deadwood, "...thank you for allowing me my full range of expression."

I can't resist linking to this video for The Higher Power of Lucky. Brilliant. 

*A case can be made for nonsense as magical language, but it is worth noting that nonsense is usually an alibi for Ta-Da! the sacred or the profane. The same holds true for evasive language.
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