“As English speakers, it’s worth thinking about the ways we use bad words and how to make our own use more vital and effective,” writes Katherine Dunn in On Cussing.
Too often we substitute words for the genuine thing. We say darn for damn or gosh for God. Then again, all too often, we don’t hold back and toss around shit, fuck, and bitch like we’re handing out bottles of water to marathoners.
“As writers,” she writes, “we now face a loss of power in the classic obscenities - the draining of shock value, the depletion of such terms’ ability to offend. Our challenge is to revive the language with vivid reinvention.”
Interestingly, her book includes a chart showing the usage of common expletives over time. Since the 1960’s, once forbidden words have exploded. Shit, by far, tops them all. Fuck ranks highly too. Cunt and motherfucker are used far less often, but growing in frequency.
The United States, up until the 1930s, dictated that a single dirty word could cause a book to be banned. hen came the obscenity trials in 1959. Several books were challenged, but in 1964 a ground-breaking Supreme Court decision established a standard in use today, that obscenities in print are acceptable if the work "has redeeming social or literary value.”
In 1973 another Supreme Court case, Miller v. California, helped establish a three-tiered test to decide what was obscene and unprotected vs. what was erotic and therefore covered by the First Amendment.
So why do we use naughty words?
· Because we can.
· To shock and grab attention.
· Provide a sense of identity and character.
· Give a feeling of urgency or severity.
· To display anger, ecstasy, and emotions.
But Dunn says that: “Overuse of any word decimates its power,” and this can be true with cuss words, too.
Dunn’s book made me realize just how often we curse:
Emotional: “So scared, he shit himself.”
Complain: “This is a shitty sandwich.”
Threaten: “I'll kick your ass so hard.”
Humor: “Who do you have to fuck to get a valet sticker validated by Christmas?”
A Curse: “I hope your ears turn into assholes and shit all over your shoulders.”
Display Ignorance: “He had no fucking clue.”
Insult: “You fucking moron!”
Politics: “Trump’s a stupid bitch.”
Anger: “Screw you, asshole!”
Sex: “Her pussy begged for more.”
The list could go on. Language – our vocabulary and sentence structure is a crucial part of our writings and our identities. Cursing keeps things real. Today’s world curses – often – and our writings, if they are to stay true to reality, will need to insert some cussing. Then again, plenty of people don’t cuss publicly. Not religious clergy, not Jerry Seinfeld, and not some people that we hold in high esteem. So maybe we can co-exist without resorting to using x-rated language.
Nothing’s worse than lazy cursing, where people overly depend on such words to make a point when such usage reflects poorly on the user. To give cuss words power, use them wisely and rarely. Do not go to the well too often when you want to drink words that offend, incite, and suggest some harsh judgments. Save and savor the words that Mom and Dad don’t want you to utter as they speak them.
Comedians make use of cuss words. So does every show on HBO, Showtime, and Netflix. It’s how pop culture operates. Along with gratuitous violence, displays of nudity, and references to drugs, our entertainment also feels the need to curse. Social media, comedy clubs, and R-rated films push our language towards a heavy reliance of cuss words.
I grew up understanding cursing is part of our culture, heritage, and language. It’s what gets people excited and moves them to act violently, be mean, have sex, make others laugh, and inspire any number of feats. Not all cursing is bad, negative, or dangerous. In fact, most cursing provides context and impact to a situation, and it certainly helps people express the raw energy they feel inside themselves.
There certainly is a role for cursing in our daily interactions and our writings. One must balance their delivery and setting for the use of such colorful language. If said in the proper time and place, curse words can be romantic, erotic, and loving. They can inspire people to survive, thrive, or be on the offensive – as well as be used to rally others to commit unspeakable acts upon others.
Dunn’s book explores the physical impact on the reader or listener of curse words, making the argument for how and when to cuss with maximum effect. Though she died three years ago, the author made her mark in literary circles. Her book, Greek Love, was a finalist for the National Book Award.
I leave you with her book’s closing words: “I trust you will give serious consideration to our cussing, both live and written bring zest and sting to the language. Avoid cliché and tedium.”
“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”
“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
“If a word in the dictionary were misspelled. How would we know?”
“The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book.”
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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at email@example.com. He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog ©2019. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent. This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby http://blog.bookbaby.com/2013/09/the-best-book-marketing-blogs and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by WinningWriters.com as a "best resource.” He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America.
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