Vulgarities and Profanities

Washington Quote
Even if no one objected to your use of vulgarity and profanity on the grounds of morals, manners and piety, you should nevertheless avoid mindless recourse to the loose and sloppy use of taboo speech. Here is why:

First, we need to make a few distinctions:

profanityProfane” means having to do with the worldly, the non-religious. It also means blasphemous, sacrilegious, impious and disrespectful of another person’s beliefs. Thus, a profanity involves irreligious behavior.

Vulgar” means, among other things, unrefined, tasteless, rude, bawdy, dirty, smutty, raunchy and lewd. It comes from “vulgus” in Latin, which means “the common people.”

bad languageCursing” does not mean saying vulgar, crude or disrespectful words; no, it is a very specific form of profanity in which the speaker wishes to commit the target of the curse — a person or a thing — to the custody and control of Satan. In other words, the speaker “damns” the target, or at least expresses a wish that the target be consigned to perdition.

The old-fashioned terms “swearing” or “uttering oaths” referred to the prohibition of the Third Commandment, that is, not to take the Lord’s name in vain. It’s not “swearing” to use purple language, for so long as the Deity is left out of the formula.

daffy duckIt is fairly common to hear the ignorant, uneducated or careless use “cursing” (or “cussing”), swearing, and saying “dirty words” as interchangeable terms. They immediately tag themselves as persons who do not know what is what or what is up.

Second, consider effectiveness:

willie wonka
Mr. Wonka

Many of the taboo words are in such common use today that they have lost their impact. As a general matter, speakers resort to profanity and vulgarity whenever their vocabulary fails them. They are too lazy or inarticulate to come up with words to express what they truly think or feel. As their vocabularies shrink — as people abandon reading and thinking, and hence the need for precision in speech — the use of vulgarity and profanity rises. That is because these words, by being taboo, express some degree of emotion, opinion or attitude without actually saying or meaning anything. As they become more commonplace they lose their shock value. They become speech mannerisms, uttered without thought and ignored by those who hear them. They become ciphers — nothing words — devoid of meaning or purpose. Consider the vulgarities you most often hear or say. What do they mean, literally? Do they have anything to do with the other words in your phrase? Usually they are just an uncreative and unthinking synonym for “bad.”

Third, hold your fire for when you need it

vulgarityThere is a parallel here to the fable of the boy who cried “Wolf!” If you employ vulgarity and profanity indiscriminately, what verbal weapons remain when an occasion comes along that clearly could justify one? The world will just assume that you are being your usual potty mouth and will pay no attention. By exercising restraint and relying on articulate, standard English to navigate life’s daily frustrations, you will reserve your heaviest firepower for when you  really need it: And that might be never, especially if you develop the habit of being clear, careful and articulate in your speech!

Finally, don’t be “wishy-washy”

euphemismsAvoid all “semi-vulgarities,” those euphemistic almost-but-not-quite-vulgar, almost-profane, punch-pulling, lame, half-hearted attempts at forceful expression. These near-miss phrases are not only just as meaningless as their more potent cousins, but also they are tepid, milquetoast drivel! You know them: heck, darn, gosh, oh snap, cripes, jeepers, freakin’ and a few more. These are the worst kind of compromise: the speaker semi-expresses an attitude,  but loses the benefit of the impact of real vulgarity and profanity. And since impact (not meaning) is the only thing such usage can accomplish, these sterilized substitutes are completely useless – and unworthy of utterance at all!

In the same vein, try to avoid inelegant expressions of dubious origin. For example, anyone over fifty should be able to explain the origin of the verb “sucks” in the context of being bad or ineffective. The same goes for “blows” and oddities like “wazoo.”

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Born in Pittsburgh, educated at Yale. Practiced law in Washington DC. Moved to Colorado. Lived in Mexico. Translator and internet content writer.

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