Monday, December 02, 2013

Things to not say in front of the baby: Substitute swearing

On a recent episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour they discussed use of profanity in pop culture, and how it is only effective when dispensed judiciously. Cursing the proverbial blue streak deadens the impact of the vulgarity. Similarly, the substitution of similar-sounding words that are not considered obscene by the FCC (or mere common decency) either in lieu of bleeping or to eschew that for broadcast can be more distracting than the use of the forbidden term would have done.

It's all about striking the appropriate balance when dispensing these so-called swear words. They need to serve their purpose without becoming pointless; they are a spice of language, and like any good spice too much makes the whole dish tasteless. However, pale substitution spices leave an unsatisfactory aftertaste.

Of course, those substitutions do become so commonplace over time that the aftertaste is expected, with satisfaction in the moment never to have been on the table in the first place. One might think that may have started with the relatively recent insertion of "freaking" instead of "fucking" but people have long been uttering "shoot" instead of "shit" or "heck" instead of "hell" (particularly in "what the heck…") to skirt around being offensive, to approximate polite discourse while still achieving some modicum of the catharsis obscenity should provide.

That's really the line with this. The reason we curse is because we have been frustrated by others or by circumstances and those harsh Anglo-Saxon words facilitate a venting of that. If uttering (or even writing) those words provides no release there was no point in uttering them in the first place.

Longtime readers will know I have dispensed both the "high octane" obscenity and the "unleaded" alternatives at different times. I suppose I make the distinction to indicate my level of frustration at that moment; if it's more modest the latter more than suffices but if it's more severe only the former will do. Occasionally in writing I've struck what I imagine I intended in the moment as a compromise by replacing the vowel with an asterisk (e.g., "f*ck" or "sh*t"), but I cannot say whether that really strikes a desired balance or merely seems so risibly toothless that I come off as pusillanimous; I'm pretending impressionable children might see it and pick up the unfiltered word (thereby contributing to their "delinquency"). The perception there probably depends on whether one has youngsters or not... and how much one identifies that thin legal line between getting in trouble for what you actually say as opposed to what you meant suggest.

With a baby coming soon there have been moments when we've caught ourselves blurting out a restricted term and thinking "oops" immediately afterward, believing we need to curb that behavior now so we reduce the habit before the child is old enough to start saying it him- or herself. It's not that we won't eventually be the bad example and prove the source for our child to adopt those terms (as our parents were for us) but we feel the obligation to be better about that during these early years, until our child develops the mental capacity to have some understanding for when it serves any purpose or is merely inanely offensive.

In the meantime there'll be the occasional "son of a biscuit" escaping our lips in moments of frustration (as ridiculous—and as difficult to explain logically—as that is).

Ain't that some shit/sh*t/poop?


  1. But make your kid erudite by using elite verbal simulacra:



    With such exposure he will be able to skip a couple of grades in school with his superior vocabulary.:

  2. Of course some think my observations are taurine excrement.

  3. Now you're just making up words, Ray.


So, what do you think?