On Cursing

Good morning.

In response to an article by Jordan Schneider.

I only became conscious about using four-letter words once I started teaching in Tbilisi.  In the primary school where I taught for a year there were many students who could say “hello” and a slew of profanities.  Still I kept it out of my language because I was in front of children, a protected category.

When I started teaching at Tbilisi State I took time towards the end of the semester to address profanities and show how they were used in context building it in to a lesson plan.  For one, this was a fun exercise.  Most of my students were females who never swear in Georgian- these words are considered unspeakable in the presence of women.  However they had no problem with the English equivalents.  (Their aversion leads me to believe that there are no English equivalents to some Georgian epithets.)  These words became running jokes within the course.  When I explained gender inequality (while I was teaching I often used a study from The Economist which estimated the “worth” of women to men regarding educational advancement and projected economic value at 40%.  (I think it has improved now but is by no means equal or close to it)) I was touched when one of the students, asked to identify the problem answered, “is it a bullshit?”  Which served to engage students (as Schneider points out) and offer a teaching point.  Also I hope that this moment or usage broke a patronizing expectation that women should be addressed differently.  It was a tool to give them confidence that they could be free to express dissatisfaction in the face of bullshit.

My wife, a Georgian, swears in English and does so liberally.  However she would never say those words in Georgian and indeed will let out an audible gasp if she hears one.

I consciously used less swearing in China.  Most male students are sufficiently used to encountering those words through playing League of Legends so there was no value in addressing them.

Now I work in the Army and attempt to swear as little as possible unless quoting someone verbatim (i.e. “he says we are not showing up that early and x can eat shit”).  Swearing is the lingua franca of being in uniform.  My commander uses a lot of it and I stand at the back of formations cringing as I perceive credibility slumping.  I notice that this cringe effect increases in correlation to the strength of his or her rank.  Cursing is that odd component of Army discipline in which if there is a problem or a mistake the solution is to get loud and accost someone with a slew of profanity.  Cursing means less and less once one realizes that your punishment will be over in a few breathless lines of invective.

In basic training, refraining was my attempt to resist the constant avenues of indoctrination which were put upon trainees.  I did not swear often the same way that I attempt not to swear in front of junior soldiers.  Part of this is empty posturing.  As an officer the expectation is to act differently and my language is one part of that.  This is again part of the problem with my elite roots (see post)  However, when responding in private to unrealistic expectations and micro management an incredulous “for fuck’s sake” is as good as it gets.

Linguistically, I feel like some of the wrangling around swearing is childish and lame.  What I realize using foreign swear words is that really, words are just sounds which are not inherently toxic i.e. “truck” and “punt” are just fine.  And cautious maneuvering to put forth a “frick” or a “crap” or to follow an utterance with “pardon my French” serves no purpose to avoid the swearing but to make it more obvious and silly looking.

As with any other word, I would use swearing selectively to mark a departure from the usual order of business.  If one is angry, in pain, helpless or in disbelief then the cursing is useful.  If those words became the “very” or the catchall nouns of a sentence then I think that something valuable is being lost.

-TK

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