Monday, October 15, 2007

Why we curse

Language has often been called a weapon, and people should be mindful about where to aim it and when to fire. The common denominator of taboo words is the act of forcing a disagreeable thought on someone, and it's worth considering how often one really wants one's audience to be reminded of excrement, urine, and exploitative sex. Even in its mildest form, intended only to keep the listener's attention, the lazy use of profanity can feel like a series of jabs in the ribs. They are annoying to the listener and a confession by the speaker that he can think of no other way to make his words worth attending to. It's all the more damning for writers, who have the luxury of choosing their words off-line from the half-million-word phantasmagoria of the English language.

--Steven Pinker, What the F***?


  1. I wholeheartedly agree!

  2. I have no objection to the use of strong language, only it's misuse and overuse, as described here.

    Lazy writing, lazy talk, to swear all the time.

  3. have you seen the gum commercial where the wife walks in on her husband and his mistress and a string of "swearing" ensues? The swearing is things like "What the French Toast!" and "You lint licker." Cracks me up every time. It's a lesson in how to make clean words sound dirty :)

  4. No, I haven't seen that commercial. My mother always told me I didn't watch enough TV. :)

    I was fascinated by the HBO series Deadwood--the language was as Shakespearean as it was vulgar.

  5. Thanks for posting the link to Pinker's article. I had read an excerpt earlier, but found the entire article fascinating.

    His description of evolution from religious-based cursing to sexually-based cursing is interesting. With the overuse of the 'f' word, I wonder what people will use next, after it has lost it's shock value. An extrapolation of Pinker would be that as long as there are sexual taboos we will have sexually based curse words. But, if it is so overused that it loses it's effect, does it matter if there are still cultural taboos?


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