I Get All Philological

There's a thing about swearing that puzzles me, but I'm not going to get to that first.

First, I'm not a big fan of it. I lived next door once to a woman who had fights every single night with her boyfriend. Every single night. EVERY SINGLE NIGHT. He would come over, and something would happen, and she would run after him into the parking lot, and they would scream at each other, swearing up one side and down the other. And it was unbelievably tedious. I was also getting no sleep, but I don't think I would have minded so much if they had actually yelled interesting things at each other. But it was just "&%$#" and "!@*&" and "$%#! your car" when I was hoping for accusations of infidelity and the mention of his third child by another woman and her best friend's confession of what he said to her. But nah. No juicy gossip.

The second reason I'm not a big fan of swearing, fictionwise, is that 9 times out of 10 (the 10th being Stephen King or Heathers), it isn't used well. That is, it is used by lazy writers (or young ones) as a way of avoiding the (difficult) task of writing persuasive dialog. Instead of figuring out how to make a character express his anger, they opt for swear words because (1) it's realistic (oh, yawn) and (2) it's easy.

I'll bypasss the whole realism argument (and my annoyance with fiction writers who can't seem to figure out that they ARE writing fiction). When Stephen King argues that his fictional milltown workers talk like milltown workers because that's how milltown workers talk, and he thinks nothing of it because that's how he grew up, I actually buy that argument. He is reproducing a vernacular that is as common to him as saying "The rains of Spain fall mainly on the plains" is to Professor Higgins. And the excessive use of the f* word in Heathers (as noun, adverb, adjective) is an effective and satiric reproduction of high school talk (with all the accompanying self-consciousness).

But, as I've said, 9 times out of 10 it isn't satiric or matter-of-fact reproduction, it's an attempt to bypass real dialog, kind of like in Star Trek: Next Gen; every time the crew visited a new planet and encountered a new species, they would inform Picard, "There are these monster looking creatures, Captain. They're impossible to describe." As Phil Farrand points out in his Nitpicker's Guide, they aren't that hard to describe: tall, hairy, snout-nosed creatures of the humanoid variety wearing baggy pants. The real problem is lazy script writing.

So now that I've taken care of my overall reactions, here's my problem: the philology of swear words. What I mean by that is when people object to swear words based on their origins.

The exchange goes something like:

Person #1: *&%#
Person #2: You know that originated amongst drug lords in prison who used it during torture!

Huh? What on earth does that have to do with the price of oil at Cumberland Farms?

It isn't just swear words, of course. And it's not an approach to language that I particularly understand. It might be interesting to philologists, but in terms of meaning (how the word is used; what people hear/think/assume when you use it), it is hardly relevant. Every word we speak meant something else, something more or something less once upon a time. Every word originated sideways or tortorously from another word. But if you head straight for the birth, bypassing the word's current meaning, you end up with people who want to write "womyn" instead of "woman." Language itself becomes, in some weird 1984 way, dangerous not because of what people actually hear but because of what people, unconsciously, unintentionally, are actually saying. It's that strange right-brain/left-brain thing again where everything becomes literal but in a tangential, subconsious way. So if you write "woman" instead of "womyn", you are unconsciously but literally partaking in the patriarchal ethos of Western civilization. It does not matter if your meaning and the meaning that is heard arouse no feelings about the patriarchal system one way or the other. Language becomes a matter of semiotics, not communication.

Which I'm not a big fan of. Swear words, as bad dialog writers know, have meaning that is often completely unattached to what the words originally or even concurrently mean. An expletive is an expletive for a reason. Besides, it is entirely possible that if you went back far enough, you'd find the word didn't have a negative meaning at all. And if that is the case, is it still a swear word?


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