Saturday, December 11, 2010

Is Bad Language Good?

Swearing, or using crude or bleep-worthy words, is rare for The Language Lady. So this afternoon, when I found myself happily singing the catchy chorus, “F--- You!” to hip-hopster Cee Lo Green’s amusing current hit song of the same name, I wondered if bad language in everyday English had reached a new phase.

The current profusion of profanity heard and seen everywhere has acquired its own sort of WikiLeak transparency, where no feeling is held back, no vulgar word replaced by a neutral one. The rebellious Sixties seem to have been the starting point for knocking down the invective barriers – and now, here we are in the 21st century, with a woman of few expletives walking around singing the F-word.

What’s going on here? Or in contemporary parlance: WTF*?

*(Spoiler Alert: Due to the nature of this subject, The Language Lady will be using non-asterixed swear words – in the name of scholarship – in this article. Just so you know.)

Bad Language – i.e., those naughty, generally four-letter, Anglo-Saxon words signifying some sort of religious curse or bodily function; and also words that are not curses per se, but coarse words for body parts and the like – has traditionally been discouraged in so-called polite society. But polite society these days seems to be aggressively lenient, with vulgarities leaching into the kitchen, carpool, schoolyard, store dressing rooms, office cubicles, and executive suites. Face it: Have you ever said, or has any child in the last 25 years heard the phrase, “Say that again and I’ll wash your mouth out with soap?” How very retro!

So, is this a good thing – this openness? Have we won the Cause for Coarseness, or is it just an unimpeded lack of imagination?

Swear words now seemed to be used 1) for (The Traditional) quick, emotional reaction to pain, fright, or frustration; 2) to sound edgy and fun; 3) to add grit and emotion; 4) to describe something quickly, with sufficient disdain. All that means opportunity-aplenty.

But where all that was once mostly just spoken (or with ironic bleeps on TV) it is appearing more and more in print: of course, books do it; blogs do it; and even the venerable literary magazine, The New Yorker, has been allowing expletives into its fiction for years.

And now the word “ass” seems to be going mass-market – such as in recent billboard ads – ones up on high poles, looming over streets and highways, for Levis blue jeans: “Not all asses were created equal;” and the big, block-letter poster from K-Swiss sports that claims, “Tubes: So light they make your socks feel like a couple of fat asses.” I have no idea what socks have to do with my rear end, but it got my attention.

Of course, the f-word usage award goes to the British clothes company, FCUK, which started out in 1972 as “French Connection”. In 2001, they started branding their clothes, “fcuk” -- or, “French Connection United Kingdom” (wink, wink) and played on the resulting controversy with a t-shirt line with all kinds of slogans like, "fcuk this", "hot as fcuk", "mile high fcuk", "too busy to fcuk", etc.

Swear words have existed as long as language – the word “swear” has prehistoric, Indo-European roots; and a recent study has revealed that swearing actually relieves pain -- meaning that our evolution as humans includes outbursts of four-letter words.

“People need special words to convey emotion,” according to author and linguistics professor Deborah Tannen. “For those who use them, swear words are linked to emotion in a visceral way.”

The website, “How Stuff Works” explains that swear words came from the ancient belief that spoken words have power. “Some cultures,” the site says, “especially ones that have not developed a written language, believe that spoken words can curse or bless people or can otherwise affect the world. This leads to the idea that some words are either very good or very bad.”

But without the social taboo that once limited the use of vulgar language, modern, everyday English just sounds filthy. Not that that’s a bad thing, according to linguist John McWhorter, who sees all this nasty language as the natural outcome of a progressively informal society -- one that’s intent on breaking taboos and showing real life in all its crass glory:

“In a hatless America of T-shirts and visible underwear,” McWhorter says, “where what were once written speeches are now baggy ‘talks’ and we barely flinch to see nudity and simulated copulation in movies, what would be strange is if people weren’t increasingly comfortable using cuss words in public.”

But is this fun, funny, or cool? Isn’t suggestion funnier or more interesting? Think about it: What is sexier – seeing a big-chested woman in a tight t-shirt with a hint of cleavage, or seeing that same lady topless? Ok, after the initial shock – THEN what? Same goes for words.

Well, there is apparently still some ambivalence toward all this lax, earthy language. Witness the recent passing of two “sh*ts” in the proverbial night: that is, two industries (entertainment and financial) in opposing camps on the use of s-word usage – and it’s effect on business. Let’s take a look:

This past fall CBS premiered a new show called, “$#*! My Dad Says,” a comedy about the relationship between a crotchety, foul-mouthed dad and his twenty-something son. The show is based on the best-selling book, “Shit My Dad Says,” which was based on the author’s real-life twitter feed of the same name. And most of the stuff the dad says includes the s-word; stuff like: 'You don't know shit, and you're not shit. Don't take that the wrong way, that was meant to cheer you up." Or, “Son, no one gives a shit about all the things your cell phone does. You didn't invent it, you just bought it. Anybody can do that."

The popularity of the show, book, and Twitter feed clearly show mass acceptance of the s-word as “entertainment” – understandably, the s-word sounds edgier, more fun, and definitely more “real” than “STUFF My Dad Says” would have. And the TV show’s use of the symbols as substitutes for the s-word makes it look funny too – though the crassness of the original title is still there; however, since CBS is doing the show, no actual four-letter words have been used in the scripts. As for the show itself, film site said, “Find out the real reason why $#*! is not only the title, but an apt description of the series …”

All this visual-verbal crassness might have pleased George Carlin, the late comedian known for his sharp, black humor, and who back in 1972 delivered the famous monologue, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV.” Carlin might now take indirect credit for the TV show title.

And Carlin might also take equal pride in the recent televised Senate investigation hearing into Goldman Sachs trades in the mortgage business, when the word “sh**ty” – not even bleeped out -- was read repeatedly by the Senate committee head grilling the traders:

“Boy, that Timberwolf was one shitty deal,” Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich) said, reading from a Goldman internal memo from a head trader to a fellow colleague; “shitty” described a certain deal, one worth millions of dollars, that the big investment firm had just transacted for a client. Senator Levin read the line each time he took a trader to task. This phrase was then copied in all media forms in news stories about that day’s hearing. Today, googling the words, “goldman shitty deal” brings up 827,000 responses.

It seems Goldman Sachs did not enjoy having its name tied to such a vulgar word: a July 29 article in the Wall Street Journal, titled, “George Carlin never would've cut it at the new Goldman Sachs,” reported that the firm had recently installed screening software to roust such vulgarities – even those with asterisks -- from all future company emails, calling that word, and others of that ilk, “unprofessional.” Let it be known, the WSJ added, “There will never be another s— deal at Goldman Sachs.”

It’s noteworthy that this multi-billion dollar firm sees bad language as bad for business. (Or maybe Goldman just wanted bad words to sound more reprehensible than questionable deals.) Could this mean the pendulum is starting to swing the other way?

I doubt it.

Everyday expressions are ever more gritty: “It sucks” has replaced “that’s too bad;” and “crappy” is the new “lousy.” There is a website called “absofuckinlutely,” which is actually pretty funny (people write in about their bad days); and even a hamburger joint on the Upper West Side claims sports a sign out front claiming it has “the best effin burgers in the city.”
Effin A!

Many people use the f-word as an adjective just to help describe some ordinary activity (“I can’t hang out now – got too much f**kin’ sh*t to do”), which they might think sounds tough, but actually seems lame. For some of those f-word users, it is a habit – like adding “like” or “y’know” -- they hardly seem aware they’re saying it. One of the crudest expressions, not in words so much as a visual turn of phrase, is used to express surprise at having accomplished something: “Boy, I really pulled that one out of my ass!” Yuck! Why not pour wet sewage all over the accomplishment.

Ultimately, bad language is offensive and shows a certain verbal lack of control – like word farts, if you will. Bad language goes along with our impatient, stressed- out society, one that’s caffeinated and on the run; we’re a society that enjoys breaking rules and taboos, and being a little out of control; And we’re all about choice – so we can all make our own verbal choices out of annoyance, anger, or just because -- and few will stand in our way.

When I was about ten and beginning to let slip a few nasty epithets in gym class, but well before my more linguistically coarse teen years, my dad gave me some advice: “Don’t swear unless you really mean it. When it’s not that important, just say ‘Beans!’” Beans?! No, Dad was not kidding. Though I never heard Dad say “Beans!” himself, he did seem to only swear once a year – the day he’d put our motorboat in the lake and try to start it up after the winter. And even then, he only swore at the motor, not at us kids.

Mom was equally good about not swearing. In fact, to this day, the only time I’ve ever heard her swear was one morning in middle school when I dropped the bacon on the floor (not the plate – just the 8 pieces of bacon, which broke into bits) and a “Damn!” thudded out of her mouth. And it’s still ringing in my ears.

So there is something to be said for holding back -- it makes the select moments more memorable and keeps ordinary air less verbally polluted. Besides, finding a way around swearing requires more ingenuity than letting it all hang out. Compare, for example, excerpts from Cole Porter’s 1928 hit, “Let’s Do It” and Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You” (2010):

“LET’S DO IT” (1928):

And that's why birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love;

Cold Cape Cod clams, 'gainst their wish, do it
Even lazy jellyfish do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love

I've heard that lizards and frogs do it
Lyin' on a rock;
They say that roosters do it
With a doodle and cock

Some Argentines, without means do it
I hear even Boston beans do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love.


“FUCK YOU” (2010)
I see you driving 'round town
With the girl i love and i'm like,
Fuck you!
Oo, oo, ooo

I guess the change in my pocket
Wasn't enough, i'm like,
Fuck you!
And fuck her too!

I said, if i was richer, i'd still be witch-ya
Ha, now ain't that some shit? (ain't that some shit?)

And although there's pain in my chest
I still wish you the best with a...
Fuck you!
Oo, oo, ooo.

Times change. Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” is still clever, and in alluding to the big thing that we all do, it was positively risqué -- back in 1928, not in 2010. Cee Lo’s song takes a lighthearted tune while keeping in the gritty reality of love, letting listeners sing expletively away --

And George Carlin must be smiling down from his place in No Holds Barred Heaven, and singing with satisfaction, “F**k youuu!”