These are the three stages of giving up swearing for Lent.
First, anger. This is quite possibly the worst decision you’ve ever made. Even your friends think so.
Second, jealousy. You start noticing that everyone else gets to say bad words while you’re left searching through your closet of neglected vocabulary, sort of in the same way that you notice everyone else seems to have played the latest “Assassin’s Creed” whenever you’re studying for exams.
Third, realization. You and the people around you have a lexical dependency.
Take a minute and tally up all the times today you’ve used a word the FCC might frown upon. Actually, just to make it easier on you, think about all the times you’ve used what might be the most malleable word in the English language.
(In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, allow me to elucidate. I’m talking about the noun, adjective, infix and activity we love to love: Fornication Under Consent of the King.)
If you haven’t been able to come up with a conclusive number or even a range of times you’ve used this word today, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Research on swearing shows us how deplorable the situation is.
A 2006 study found that approximately 3 percent of words used in a chat room were “taboo” words, at a rate of about one profane word per two minutes. OK. Fine. We all know everyone except us on the Internet is an inarticulate pedant or troll. Real life is different.
But not by much. On average, approximately 0.5 percent to 0.7 percent of a person’s daily spoken vocabulary is taboo, of which the majority is the Favorite Undertaking of College Kids and a common term for feces.
That’s not so bad, right? Half a percent of in-state tuition can barely buy you lunch at Jazzman’s to eat among all those F-bomb-dropping students.
Consider how often you use a first-person plural pronoun. There is the direct object (“Tell us why you were arrested!”), the possessive (“They found our pot stash.”), and the subject usage (“We probably shouldn’t have been dealing in College-in-the-Woods, of all obvious places.”), among others. These aren’t considered low-frequency words.
They make up about 1 percent of the words spoken in a day.
We depend on these pronouns to tell stories, make demands, pretty much do anything involving more than one person. They are a pillar of our vocabulary.
On the other hand, obscene words are really just flourishes we tack on to sentences or words for added emphasis. Their usage can be cathartic, yes, and it’s always better if you can express your distaste by flinging a good old-fashioned, “F[iretr]uck you!” at someone instead of punching him, but their overuse also lessens their effectiveness. When was the last time you were actually offended by such casual profanity?
Views on swearing vary widely. The FCC has been loosening its restrictions as the years go by. Towns like Middleborough, Mass., which proposed an ordinance last year making public, loud obscene language finable, are tightening up. Some people make their living on the inventive usage of so-called “bad words.” Ian Miller, “swearing consultant” of “The Thick of It” on the BBC, has pointed out that swearing can improve the cadence of a sentence.
Clearly it has its place in the vernacular, whether as an emotional outlet or for aesthetic purposes. But that doesn’t mean that we should allow ourselves to become lazy or dependent.
There’s a scene in “Dead Poet’s Society” in which the teacher, Mr. Keating, tells his class to avoid using the word “very” in favor of more illustrative language. We can apply this philosophy to swear words too.
The English language is kleptomaniacal in its adoption of words from other languages. We don’t have to say that an exam was “very” hard. We can say it was difficult, arduous, formidable, prohibitive, or even Herculean, if you want to spice up your sentence with some Greek mythology. These options are far more interesting in the same way that Binghamton’s Restaurant Week is more interesting than Sodexo.
Think about it this way: every time you choose an obscenity because you’re too lazy to think of a better word, you’ve essentially chosen to get a burger from the grill at a dining hall instead of Burger Mondays.