My fascination with four-letter words and their variations began at age 3 with the words “fire truck.” I was just learning how to speak and my parents thought it was funny to make me say “fire truck.” Unable to enunciate, my garbled English made it sound like I was saying “f–k.” Adults thought it was hilarious and I loved the attention even though I had no idea why people were laughing.
Much to my parents’ dismay, this s–tty party trick followed me into adulthood, making me the proud sailor-mouthed woman I am today.
A fellow potty mouth recently GIFed her way across the Internet with the help of an expletive. Ashley Wagner, a Team USA figure skater, crinkled her face disapprovingly and mouthed the word “bulls–t” when she got her scores for the Feb. 9 women’s short program ice skating event at the Sochi Winter Olympics. The footage and resulting GIF went viral almost immediately.
Wagner’s cursing was more funny than offensive, evidenced by the mocking comments and blog posts that followed. Although people weren’t mad about it, the GIF certainly wouldn’t have had much of an impact if she had used softer language.
Wagner said the right thing at the right time. After losing an Olympic medal, no one expected her to say “Gosh dang it!” or “Golly gee!” But as with any kind of power, cursing should be carried out carefully and with intent.
My parents still say cursing makes people sound dumb, but it’s not that f–king simple. Cursing for lack of a better word or as a reflex is stupid, but dropping a well-timed F-bomb can be eloquent and powerful. It can even help manage pain, according to a 2009 study published in the neuroscience journal NeuroReport.
A 2011 follow-up to that same study found that while releasing a string of expletives can help ease pain, the soothing effect is lessened if subjects swear on a regular basis. Similarly, swear words lose their power if used too frequently.
For example, no one would be surprised if the notoriously coarse Mayor Rahm Emanuel was overheard telling someone to f–k off, but if President Barack Obama lit up the mic like that, it’d be on the front page of every news outlet.
And it’s not just frequency that determines the effectiveness of four-letter words—it’s context, too.
There are right and wrong times to use curse words. Wagner’s s–t bomb is a good example of how context is the key to intelligent cursing—she just lost an Olympic medal, which is a good time to lay the language on thick.
There are also instances when cussing is in bad taste, like writing a commentary in a college newspaper. That’s why swear words are censored in this article. The newspaper has a policy against certain words, though The Chronicle is more liberal than most—we allow the words ass and bitch—but I am obliged to tame most of the curse words in this commentary because we have a diverse audience. Besides, censoring dashes still convey the sauciness of the words.
Of course, these standards only apply in public. Let your f–k flag fly when you’re talking among friends—I sure do.
But when is it appropriate to use curse words in public? There aren’t a lot of hard-and-fast rules, except for when children are around. Only an a–hole curses when children are around. Other than that, I find it hard to conjure up a time and place where cursing should be strictly prohibited.
Even the law doesn’t provide a precise answer to when and where profanity is OK. “Obscenity” isn’t protected by the First Amendment right to free speech, but what constitutes obscenity is loosely defined and depends on context. The Miller Test, the legal test to determine whether something is considered obscene, examines both community standards and whether or not a piece has literary, artistic, educational or scientific value.
The law is also a good test for when you should and shouldn’t use curse words to add emphasis. Does it add literary or artistic value to what you’re saying? If so, go for it.
The classroom is an interesting case study of obscenity. Some believe the college classroom should be a formal educational setting, but that’s bulls–t. A room full of adults, especially educated adults, is unlikely to be defiled by the occasional expletive.
Teachers should use a Miller Test-type mechanism to monitor classroom cursing, though. If the word is adding value, let it be. If it’s gratuitous, feel free to get out the mouth soap. Profanity is a reality in most professional settings, particularly artistic ones, and it should be reflected in the learning environment of classrooms.
Of course, students should respect teachers’ wishes. A little healthy debate never hurts, but ultimately an F-bomb isn’t worth an F on your transcript.
While some may say Wagner’s viral expletive after learning her score was inappropriate, it was harmless, hilarious and demonstrated once again the power of four-letter words to underline a point. When wielded correctly and in the correct context, profanity really can be f–king awesome.