Essay | The Profane and the Indecent


I was recently told that a co-worker of mine doesn't curse.  I didn't believe it at first.I could have sworn I had heard him use a variety of obscenities, everything from S to F. As I thought about it a little more, searching my mental rolodex for specific memories, I found that I had nothing. Just vague assumptions that he cursed, when, apparently, they were always modified to less offensive, non-sequitur substitutes like the ever popular stuff and fudge.

I use expletives a lot, casually, as often as I use napkins. I also have this handy subconscious mechanism that omits curse words when in the presence of authority, whether it be parents or bosses. I didn't used to dole out the profanities with such reckless abandon. It used to be a bigger deal to me, a top tier sin.

The first time I heard a cuss word, as we called them in our childhood, was probably in the 3rd or 4th grade. Kids were arguing - boys, mostly, the cool ones with the extra baggy pants that had learned gang signs from their older brothers. That was where all the cool, bad stuff we weren't supposed to know came from: Older brothers. Whether his own or not, eventually some 15 year old too-cool-for-school tweener will teach his younger brother what a condom is, and then that kid would tell all of us. It was a secret information network. We were prohibition-era gangsters and smugglers.

Thing is, I had no older brother. So a lot of this was a mystery to me. All I knew was that these were powerful bits of information, and that if I knew them, I would be going to hell.

I only remember one of these kids, but I remember him well. We'll call him JL. JL was sitting on the table, on his knees, straight up in the face of some other hard-knocks kid. These were two power players of the playground: kids with a large sphere of influence and were of more political import than me, a kid who brought his own lunch in a large, turqoise Rubbermaid lunchbox.

I don't particularly remember what they were arguing about. I was sitting downbench from them, at an adjoining table with my own group of outcast friends, and these kids had somehow appropriated the other end of it, unawares that they were encroaching. That's when JL, standing tall, pointed at the other kid and said it:

"Shut the fuck up!"

A spiraling "Oooohh!" came across the surrounding crowd and we knew it had gotten real. In grown up terms, it would be the point where someone pulled out a gun during a heated argument. Because that's what these words were to us in your youthful perception: weapons. That mysterious word, that we weren't sure what it meant, but we knew it was dangerous. It was an escalation.

The argument defused, one way or another, because how are you going to top that? He busted out the word. You can't just use the word back. It was a one-off nuclear option. It was the first time I had heard the word, but I had read it in graffiti before, scratched into tables and trees. I had suddenly connected that writing with the spoken word, and all of a sudden, I had a question. The effect it had on people confused me. What did it mean? I asked my mom when I got home.

"Mom, what does F-U-C-K mean?"

I remember her stunned face and how she stopped what she was doing.

"Don't say that word!"

"I didn't say it, I just spelled it."

"Still, it's bad! Don't say it."

"But what does it mean?"

"It means a lot of bad things."

So I spent the next few years believing that the F-bomb had no literal meaning, and was nothing but a word representing an amalgamation of every bad thing all mashed up together. Murder, hitting girls, stealing, the devil -- together, all of these things were Fuck.

For a while, even the word "stupid" was forbidden. The casualness of cursing came into me slowly as I grew older. I tested the waters and found words increasingly viable as substitutes. Crap was okay, but shit was not. Screw was okay, but fuck was not. There was a period, even, where my sister and I were addicted to the using the word "screw" - screw that, screw this, screw homework.

As I started hanging out with increasingly foul mouthed friends, watching R-rated movies, and reading literary fiction with liberal obscenities, my nerves relaxed and I kept them in my lexicon more comfortably. For a while, when I was new to the profanity game, I was worried I might accidentally drop an s-bomb in conversation with my parents. But I didn't. Not even during a hydroplaning car accident.

It has gotten to the point where, I think, I wish I had reigned it in a little bit.

Not because I can't scrub the filth of sin off myself with steel wool, but because it has lost that annihilating magic it used to have all those years ago when JL used it on that school yard bench. The expletive is a powerful, magical tool of language. It can cut down, emphasize and surprise. It can be paired, quite effectively, with proper and fanciful language in order to evoke an acute sense of motherfucking irony.

There are people like my co-worker who never swear. So that when they do, you know they mean it. It comes from them, and they can see the stun in your face as you stop what you're doing. I wonder if, these days, I could cut out the curse word altogether, much in the same way. If every round is a magic bullet, it ceases to be magic.