Saturday, June 09, 2007

Sticks and Stones...

Sticks and Stones…

A court has decided that the Federal Communications Commission’s rules against the use of naughty words on television – “fleeting expletives” -- should be reconsidered.
Apoplectic with rage, the chairman of the FCC, Kevin Martin, responded that the judges on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York were “divorced from reality.” Another judge has darkly predicted that the airwaves will now be full of horrible swear words.
Good. The more often we hear curse words, the less power they will have to shock. After all, swear words are shocking because
(1) they are usually used in an ugly, explosive way by angry people and
(2) they tend to refer to certain body functions, or they use the name of the Lord in vain (“G-- damn it”), or they are gross insults (think of two b-words and the n-word).
The most shocking word, the f word, has 83,200,000 citations on Google. Its main rival has only 74,900,000. There’s even a website that counts f word’s citations in the movies: “Casino” (1995) has 398, and it’s only No. 3.
Our response is psychological. We’re conditioned to respond to a curse word with shock because we associate it with a burst of anger – or with sudden bad news. (It’s something people may say when they discover that they are in trouble. “Oh, hell!” is a mild form.)
Only certain words have this power. “Merde” doesn’t faze us Americans -- because it’s French and it doesn’t have the associations the English equivalent has. “Bloody” is an English swear word that hasn’t immigrated here.
The offensive words tend to be short Anglo-Saxon words. “Excrement” doesn’t cut it. A four-letter word for “urinate” qualifies, although it is used repeatedly in the King James Bible.
If someone in a fit of rage said, “Lord love a duck!” or “Fiddlesticks!” no one would much mind.
Mild curse words can even liven things up, as intensifiers. (The appeals court wrote of “non-literal uses.”) “I don’t believe it” is nowhere near as arresting as, “Hell, I don’t believe it.” (Granted, “hell” has lost almost all of its power to shock.)
Many summers ago I worked in a table-manufacturing factory in West New York, N.J., where the workers would use the f word habitually, as in “Pass the (f word-en) hammer.” Norman Mailer used the substitute “fug” in his novel, “Naked and the Dead.” When Tallulah Bankhead met him, she supposedly said, “So you’re the writer who can’t spell (f word).”
In fact, the uses of the word that the FCC objected to were clear intensifiers. The U2 frontman Bono said on TV after winning the Golden Globe award that this is “really, really (f word) brilliant.” Cher was another offender.
Besides, certain verbal jokes absolutely need curse words in their punch lines, to convey anger or contempt. As in this punch line from one of my favorite jokes: “I’m drowning, you schmuck!”
The offensive words have gotten too much attention, mainly from bluenoses who have nothing more important to worry about, like hunger and poverty and disease and that depressing-as-hell war. (I’ll bet that most bluenoses are “locals” and not what sociologists call “cosmopolitans” – sophisticated people with college educations living in or near big cities.)
So, let’s just ignore those words and their power will largely go away. That’s actually what’s happening. In a film I just saw, “Knocked Up,” the f word was used all over the place. Even The New Yorker is using such words more and more. Yes, The New Yorker. What would Eustace Tilly say?
I think it’s just silly for people to get so exercised over the use of certain words, and I’m sure that as the words become more commonly used — and as intensifiers and not just in anger – they will lose most of their power to disturb. Even bluenoses, if they think about it, will realize that being concerned about the use of profanity is an appalling waste of precious time.
Who gives a (curse word)?

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