“The problem with people who have no vicesis that generally you can be pretty sure they’regoing to have some pretty annoying virtues.”—Elizabeth Taylor
In the neverending debate over the place of manners and civility in the modern world, some people will always bemoan the public use of foul language by suggesting that it connotes a lack of education, a limited vocabulary, disrespect for the people around you, or even a dearth of imagination. Nonsense, I say. With all due respect, those people don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.
There’s a uniquely satisfying pleasure to be had in expressing oneself with carefully chosen expletives, whether of the four-letter variety or otherwise. And I don’t know about where you work, but at the City Paper office we’re all of us pretty quick with an obscenity or two — and quite often several dozen strung together with no formal syntactical linkages other than grunts and rapid hand gestures.
And it’s not just a guy thing, let me assure you. If anything, the men in the office have a tough time keeping up with the pace (not to mention the volume) set by the women. All of us, men and women, long ago got over any niggling doubts about the propriety of the “seven dirty words” George Carlin famously spoke of. Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits have become essential elements of our office vocabulary; we wouldn’t know how to properly express ourselves without them. They’re each beautiful in their own way, rich with meaning both literal and metaphorical. They are the workhorses of the English language, each fulfilling myriad parts of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb), and capable of denoting pain, pleasure, hate, love, frustration, joy, anger, confusion, doubt, fear, indifference, and a hundred other emotional states with ease — often, when shouted at volume from behind one’s desk, without requiring the assistance of a single other word.
Detractors accuse users of excessive profanities of being lazy and childish. I prefer to think of it as efficiency, not laziness. Why use several words when one will do just fine? And childishness? Who among us wouldn’t benefit from experiencing the world around us with a renewed childlike sense of wonder and astonishment, especially when we suddenly realize we failed to hit “save” before the server crapped out and we wish to immediately share our profound sense of loss with the rest of the office?
Not everyone at the City Paper shares an equal sense of admiration for the unchecked expression of invective, though, particularly when there are potential advertising clients roaming the sales department or, say, someone in an adjoining office is interviewing an important public official on the telephone. In those instances, the moment the offended advertiser leaves or the official hangs up in a huff, you’re likely to get dressed down for being the ignorant fucking dickbrained, shitheaded douchebag of an asshole-licking shitsucking cunthair that you are. And deservedly so. Such is the nature of professional life; there have to be limits, after all.
Indeed, for all the freedoms we enjoy in our office communications, there’s considerably less latitude when it comes to the product itself. You won’t see the word “fuck” printed in 48-point type on the cover of the paper, for example, silly as that may seem. Nor will it appear in any headlines or subheads. For the time being, however, body copy is still fair game. Observe: the word “fuck” in print. Here it is again: “fuck.” Entertaining, isn’t it? Just imagine how much fun we have with 26 in-house employees and weekly print deadlines.
Our fondness for expressing ourselves with off-color words and phrases is nothing new, of course. Linguists have traced some of Americans’ juiciest expletives to the 11th century, and it seems a certainty that our earliest ancestors found ways of letting loose with a monosyllabic invective even from the very dawn of language. No less an authority than William Shakespeare, arguably our civilization’s greatest author, made liberal use of the choicest profanities of his day. “Zounds” is a shortening of the deliciously blasphemous “God’s wounds,” after all, and a phrase like “Thou craven common-kissing canker-blossom, Thou churlish bat-fowling giglet!” is rife with any number of obscene meanings (the bit about the bat is particularly satisfying, no?).
If we’re comfortable with the notion of such naughtiness in history’s most revered works of literature, then why not in our homes, our offices, our public spaces, our churches, and our centers of commerce? We should celebrate profanity, not denigrate and chastise those who use it. Call it a vice if you will. Cursing is as natural and joyous a function of language as laughter and the murmurings of love. And it’s a shitload more fun.
“You taught me language,” Caliban says to Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.”
Arts and Screen Editor Patrick Sharbaugh regularly washes out his own mouth with soap. Not that it does much good.