Language, songwriter Laurie Anderson said, is a virus. As a lover of the sometimes awkward but always competent English language, I revel in the infectious spread of new phrases and the reinterpretations of old words.
What “sick” means to my generation, and what it means to your kids’ generation, are two very different things. It’s perfectly cromulent to shake up the dialect, to keep it simmering and evolving.
A writer’s living depends on knowing and understanding a broad spectrum of words and an ability to bandy semantics. I prefer reckless abandon; I have never grasped the conservative impulse to speak and write in a straight line.
I am a cheerful abuser of “form is meaning,” in which the shape and length of a sentence or paragraph communicates to the reader, for example, a situation that requires the illustration of being tired or bored, thus inspiring the choosing of a laborious and convoluted string of words that force the reader to work hard and become borderline frustrated, resulting in not only the direct communication of the tiring and boring situation, but the very real physical effect of being tired and bored, so that by the end of the paragraph or sentence, the reader is mentally feeling the pain of the protagonist (or antagonist), not just reading about it in a cold, clinical way, as one observes a spider with its legs pulled off without feeling the spider’s pain as it twitches and struggles in its Petri dish arena of mortality under the uncaring eye of the microscope, struggling and scrambling with no hope of imminent or eventual release from the hellish and seemingly endless ordeal in which it has been unfairly thrust, an increasingly desperate and disjointed experience, an arachnid version of Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot” as filtered through the macabre and twisted mind of Edgar Allan Poe, author of such haunting and morbid tales of the imagination as “The Cask of Amontillado,” a famous short story in which a revenge-minded fellow leads his drunken victim on a nail-bitingly endless walk through dank catacombs, an underground journey in which each dreadful step begins to feel like an unstoppable march to termination.
“Form is meaning” can also illustrate sudden shock:
“That spider’s f***ed.”
There are words that stick in one’s vocabulary and refuse to budge, whole strings of nouns and verbs that settle in the brain like a favorite song. When I am expressing myself, no word is ruled out. I am particularly fond of curse words. There are some who will tell you that so-called obscenities are for the base and vulgar, but that closes the door on an entire room of expression. My penchant for swear and curse words has been tempered since the birth of our son last year, but it’s a challenge to leave cursing behind; it’s like breaking up with a person who has been a reliable and trusted friend. I can’t curse at home, I’m trying not to curse while driving, the biggest challenge, and I have to consciously strain to not swear on the live radio cameos I make each week; I always feel like I’m one slip of the tongue from an FCC fine.
Where, oh where, can a man curse?
The recent study by the U.K.-based Leadership and Organization Development Journal that stated cursing at work can be a good thing gives me great joy.
Taboo language, the report said, can “manifest itself in solidarity that helps create a much more pleasurable and productive place to work.”
The study references mostly male situations, like football locker rooms or factory floors, in which the “competitive nature of men’s speech creates a sense of harmony and oneness.” Such places, the report said, offer a “lively boisterous communication style with friendly insults and witty use of coarse, casual profanity.”
It’s not just men. The study reported, “Women tend to swear more in mixed company as a means of asserting themselves and preventing the conversation from being male-dominated.”
You go, girls! I bet, off camera, Oprah curses like a sailor with his dinghy caught in a shallow cove.
Of course, as with any party, there is a downside.
“Bullying is verbally aggressive behavior that has adverse effects on workplace dynamics,” the report said. “Repeated occurrences of swearing, threats and verbal abuse can lead to depression, stress, low morale, absenteeism, retention problems and sluggish productivity.”
As with most things in life, there’s a happy medium.
In Sterling Johnson’s book “English as a Second F***ing Language,” the case is made thusly: “In the English language, swearing is essential to effective communication. Whether you want to succeed in business, school or social circles, a strong command of vocabulary is absolutely necessary.”
Johnson points out that even the vaunted Shakespeare revelled in curses and obscenity homonyms, and invokes Mark Twain, who said, “When it comes down to pure ornamental cursing, the native American is gifted above the sons of men.”
You can try to inoculate yourself from George Carlin’s seven “dirty” words, but they’ve been around longer than you, and I can guarantee you will predecease them.
That’s a bitch, but sh*t happens.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.