In Praise, Sort of, of Profanity

I am not an apologist for snark—Stark, yes—but not snark. And I’m not going to argue that profanity—cussing as this young fellow, featured on a recent story on NPR has it—

I think David Denby and others are right that discourse—or some of it—has deteriorated in the digital culture.

But all of that aside, it seems to me that there are distinct and visceral pleasures—an onomatopoetic expression of sensation merged with the physical sensation of its experience. The two most popular “cuss” words, it would seem to me, are the S-word and the F-word. And both can be deployed in a variety of ways that are entirely irrelevant of their dictionary definitions and to express a wide variety of emotions. (And a lot of times can be used with a lassitude that labels the user as stupid and inarticulate.)

Explosively expressive 

The thing about these two words in particular, and some others—the B-word, for example—is the sheer physicality of their use. In linguistic terms, most of the tastiest profanity is loaded with plosives, or little sudden stops in giving breath to a sound, as in sudden halting of the final consonant of the S-word. Ditto the final consonant of the F-word. They’re also loaded with fricatives, in which the voicing of the consonant sound is more or less crushed upon its escape—between teeth, between lips and teeth, between tongue and palate or tongue and teeth. Which also occurs in these two words (ditto the B-word). You have the fricative at the beginning of the monosyllable, F forced between the upper teeth and lower lip, and then a satisfying middle period of pure sound that’s almost groan and uses pretty much the entirely of the mouth, and then it’s suddenly halted by the back of the mouth by the tongue—K, which also has a fricative quality.

So you’re hammering a nail and miss and your errant thumb just happens to be the recipient of the hammer’s blow. Seems to me that that sort of monosyllabic expression, with all its rough edges and sibilance, is very close to an onomatopoetic expression of the similar physical sensation currently being expressed by the neurons in the thumb.

So should I use these and other colorful words as much as I do? No. And why have I not used them here? Do demonstrate their power. You know what I’m talking about. 

Which sort of goes to what the young man in the video above—in his NPR interview—says about “dang is okay.”
Persephone’s Box says in this post:

“Why are replacement words like “fudge” or “frigging” or “cheese and rice” or “heck” or “gall darn it” or “sugar” considered better than the actual terms when we all know that’s what you’re really thinking? I don’t think they are any better.”

But the kid has gotten “death threats.” What a bunch of toadsuckers there are out there.

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About Steve, i.e., him

Stephen Stark is an award-winning novelist and bestselling ghostwriter. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, Poets & Writers and in many other journals. He has been a fellow and taught at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and won an NEA Literature Fellowship in fiction. His novel, Second Son, was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1992, and a New and Noteworthy Paperback of 1994.

Tell me what you think. Seriously.