Friday, May 30, 2008

Why are curses inherently bad?

I was listening to one of my favorite singers - Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - when I heard something that made me think. Billy (real name Will Oldham) is a truly crazy man with a Nietzsche beard who creates cavernous and terrifying pseudo-folk music.

He lulls you into complacency with sparse instrumentals and pretty but obvious lyrics about mountains and women and valleys. Then all of a sudden he hits you with the following:
If I could fuck a mountain
I would fuck a mountain
And I'd do it with a woman in the valley
Why is this so jarring? Two reasons: the image of a man copulating with a mountain is strange, and the use of a curse is totally unexpected. It's crazy and startling.

I asked myself why I was startled. The answer is that I was startled because he cursed. Why does cursing startle me? Because I've been taught (by parents, school and general society) that it should. But should it? Taboo words are part of basically every language. Since I'll be talking linguistically now, there will be quite a few curses. You have been forewarned.

I have seen some people - generally conservative Christians - who argue that words like 'damn' are affronts to God, and should not be said for that reason. Yet in common speech, the harshest curse is ususally 'fuck,' which has no blasphemous quality to it. Neither does 'shit' - the other harsh curse. The religiously-derived curses - 'hell' and 'damn' - are actually quite moderate.

Despite what some people may argue, no word inherently means anything at all. All the meaning comes from how people use a word. The situations in which people use words also determine when they are acceptable. A word is only a package of sounds; without society to inform it, the word is useless.

People object to words like 'fuck' because they're sexually explicit. Yet there are now so many ways of using 'fuck' that groups that guard 'decency standards' must grade whether the word was used in reference to sex or just as an exclamation. The former is heavily punished; the latter is punished more lightly. The fact is that almost any word could be sexually explicit in context. A censorious obsession with euphemism is, in my opinion, misplaced.

This doesn't mean that I'm going to go around cursing in front of little kids all the time. It won't change my habits at all to know that the taboo around 'fuck' is just invented. But it should give pause to those who would argue that there are universal laws of correct and incorrect in language.

P.S. Two fun facts about 'fuck':

1) Fuck comes from a German word meaning 'to strike.' It does not come from an acronym for "Fornication Under Consent of the King". It's been in the English language for longer than words like 'fornication' or 'consent'. I have been told this totally false story so often that whenever someone tries it on me now, I start shouting at them: "WRONG WRONG WRONG!"

2) Many languages have a third affix, in addition to prefixes and suffixes. The 'interfix' does not exist in English - except with the word 'fuck,' which is the only word that can use that form. When added, it emphasizes the meaning with a certain enthusiastic edge: in-fuckin'-credible!


Anonymous said...

sticks and stones will hurt my bones but words will never harm me..... many good points to ponder

bleep, bleep,f#@%&^g crazy

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