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Editorials

Wrong Reasons to do SM
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Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language
by Ruth Wajnryb


Book Review by Rob Hardy



There can be no more gleefully erroneous title for a book than Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language (The Free Press) by Ruth Wajnryb. In Wajnryb's book, the expletives are decidedly not deleted, although in this review, proper fellow that I am, I will try to avoid the worst ones. Thus every member of George Carlin's infamous list of the seven major words you can't say on television is here, along with lots of others, plus some guest appearances by swear words of other languages. There is plenty of sexual language, of course, but there is little titillating here. Though Wajnryb is a witty writer and puts in many good jokes of her own and others, this is essentially a serious study. Wajnryb, after all, is not a stand up comic like Carlin, but a linguist who sometimes has to explain, with as little apology as possible, that bad words are a proper subject of academic linguistic study. For instance, she writes, "Precisely why one might want to get into the grammatical knickers of cross-cultural swearing is anyone's bet, but linguists do things like that." She delves into details of that particular aspect of bad language, and many others, and entertains throughout.

Why do we swear? Wajnryb does not want to consider the question other than linguistically (not, say, psychologically), and sees swearing as a meaningful use of words, a use which has characteristics and patterns. In other words, it has meaning and it has uses. One use is catharsis. Stub your toe, and you are likely to say a swear word loudly, even if there is no one else at home. Even if you don't swear, you are likely to yell something like "Ow!" just as a cat cries out if you step on her tail. Probably the stub-toe swearing is deeply ingrained in the lower, more animal and automatic regions of our brains; it might not actually reduce the pain, but perhaps it just gives the brain something else to do. The same words that might be used for a stubbed toe, however, can be used against other individuals. This is abusive swearing, and it was examined by (of all people) the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He said that if you call someone by a swear word, you might firstly be participating in some of the same cathartic process as you do when you swear after stubbing your toe. An additional abusive subcategory is when the name-calling is verbally violent and genuinely malignant. It substitutes, in a way, for physical blows. A completely different category of swearing (Coleridge didn't get around to this one) is social swearing. The more relaxed a group is, and the less mixing of sexes within in, the more likely the participants are to use swear words, not in shock or anger, but just as a sort of a social lubricant. It is playful and jokey. Many of Wajnryb's examples come from her native Australia, where they are much more likely to use the term "bloody" than we are, and an example of such swearing is an "infix", a technical linguistic term meaning that the swearword is inserted into another word for emphasis one mate might reply to another when asked if he wants a drink, "Abso-bloody-lutely".

The famous f-word might be easily substituted for such an infix. The word is a good one for coitus; there isn't another word that operates as well for that specific act, although "bonk" is used especially in Britain as a family-friendly name for the act, if your family consists of the sort of people who discuss such things. It is, however, "rarely used referentially, being more commonly used in anger as an intensifier." As talking about sex got to be more acceptable, the word drifted from its sexual meaning and became more frequently used. Dictionaries didn't include it until recently, and thus it does not have as accurate an etymological history as nicer words. It is interesting that the best guesses for this ancient word came from either Latin or German or French, with the root word in each case having both a sexual and a physically violent meaning (to beat or strike); note that "bonk" does so, too. To fill in an etymological void, creative acronym designers have invented a story about "fornication under command of the king" or some such, but the story is imaginary. There really is, however, a company called French Connection United Kingdom, which makes clothes and takes delight in spreading its initials across its apparel, to the amusement or disgust of dyslexics and non-dyslexics alike. Wajnryb has found a funny peculiarity in her Word program if she types in the f-word in gerund form, it is accepted and not highlighted as needing a spelling correction; but if she misspells the word in its gerund form, she is given the suggestion that she might want to change it to "bucking", "fluking", or "ducking", but never the actual word she intended to type. "Is this a Bill Gates version of washing out the world's English mouth out with soap?"

Just as that word became more broadly used as people became more able to talk openly about sex, so the swear words having to do with religious matters have been more widely used as the church has become less influential over the centuries. Blasphemy used to get people burned at the stake, but there was still a flourishing store of verbal church naughtiness; of course, this was the effect, and the proscription of such language was the cause. The simplest of the religious curses, "damn", raised an issue of territoriality; the church's response was that the church would do the damning, thanks, and no one else could do the deed or use the word. The church had the power to damn, for instance, those who said "damn", and did not want to give it up. But people so enjoyed damning each other, there was little the church could do. By the fifteenth century, Englishmen were saying "Goddam" so often that the word became the slang term by which Frenchmen designated them. Of course they carried the word around the empire, and it stuck. When a naval captain visited the Sandwich Islands forty years after the landing of Captain Cook, he was officially greeted in these words "Very glad see you! Damn your eyes! Me like English very much. Devilish hot, sir! Goddam!"

Among the most interesting aspects of swearing that Wajnryb describes is our clever capacity to get around it. We have rightly come to see as stupid the do-gooder efforts of such prigs as Thomas Bowdler, who wanted to make Shakespeare's words safe for children, but we still find ways to swear without swearing. As the taboo on "the" word has been reduced, so, too, has the number of asterisks risked in print; "f***" became "f**k", then "f*ck" and now is regularly written in full. Blanks are often used, as in "F---", so that the compound "blankety-blank-blank" can be spoken as a swear substitute. We also change words to their close kin, so someone might say "That's just too freaking bad," and he knows what he really means, as do his hearers, and he gets the approximate use of the word without incurring any penalty for actually using it. So, too, with "frigging," which has given birth to the delightful portmanteau word "frigamarole." "Bloody" itself may have derived from the religiously more improper "by Our Lady," so it is itself a euphemism, but it is now itself euphemized by "ruddy", "blooming", or "bleeding". When Eliza Doolittle exclaimed, "Not bloody likely!" in the 1914 production of Pygmalion, it was so scandalous and delightful that swearers commemorated it with the exclamation, "Not Pygmalion likely!" Even this sort of change would probably not gratify the president of a real organization, The Cuss Control Academy (who is the author of the book Cuss Control The Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cussing). Those who campaign against swearing insist that swearers are not only naughty, they are lazy. Not so, demonstrates Wajnryb; her instructive book shows that swearing is something people have inventively worked on for centuries, and they use according to understandable linguistic principles. It's a damn fun book.

________
© 2005 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.


Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language

(Free Press; July 5, 2005; ISBN 0743274342)
 Available at: Amazon.com / Amazon UK / Amazon CA



About the Reviewer
Rob Hardy is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife, two terriers, five cats, and goldfish.

He reviews nonfiction for The Times of Acadiana, but has been reviewing books as a hobby for years before that.
Email: Rob Hardy



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