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Clickbait Philosophy: Can cursing KILL YOU?
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Clickbait Philosophy: Can cursing KILL YOU?

My mother used to tell me that profanity was for those who weren’t creative enough to think of another word to use. I never gave much thought to the saying. Although I must say, I never took it to heart. However, a recent article in the Daily, which to the best of my understanding had something to do with Marc Tessier-Lavigne, has prompted me to reconsider the place of profanity in serious forms of communication. As is well known, great authors like Shakespeare, Plato, Joyce have all utilized profanity. Were they wrong to do so? Should we expect our journalistic media to refrain from such usage?

At the outset, it seems helpful to me to distinguish two classes of ill-mannered words, which are generally lumped together: Slurs and curses. Slurs, as is well know, generally have a particular group, generally racial, ethnic or religious, as their referent and tend to be associated with a negatively stereotyped version of said group. As such, prohibition of slurs can find a basis in the standard arguments against discrimination, for respecting basic dignity, etc… On the other hand, curses are instances of profanity, which have no such particular target. Examples of words I have in mind here include “damn,” “fuck” and “hell.” Some curses seem to be derived from slurs, for instance, “son of a bitch,” but in this derivation they seem to loosen their connection with the pejorative stereotype of the slur (this particular observation may evoke differing intuitions).

It is hard to decide precisely what it is that curses convey semantically. All of the above cited examples have a relatively precise meaning in the English language, but their general use as curses departs radically from that definition. We can see this in the fact that some semantically different curses are virtually interchangeable in use. It seems, then, that the best description we can provide of them will be pragmatic, about what they do, rather than semantic, about what they mean. A comprehensive listing of such uses is probably impossible. Here, I will content myself with a short survey of some common reasons for using curses. We might use them when angry, as vocal expression of that anger. For instance, when telling someone to “fuck off,” the speaker is not, in general, really telling the listener to do anything in particular. He is simply making known his general dissatisfaction. We sometimes uses curses in a similar way, to express pain or dissatisfaction. Sometimes, curses are used for emphasis, as in the phrase “That’s not the fucking point.” We can view them as colloquial exclamation marks. There are also dialects of English in which the regular use of curses is simply a part of the pattern of speech, in much the way that “y’all” replaces “you all” in the southern vernacular. Finally, the negative social connotation given to curses has the potential to play a subversive role in discourse. We thus sometimes use them to cultivate a general tone of resistance or rebellion.

It seems to me that none of these uses provide us with a clear avenue for ruling out the use of such words. In fact, in virtue of their role as emphasizers and as markers of rebellion, it seems to be the case that there may be instances in which curse words can do the job better than any other word. Nonetheless, these same features point out how the use of curses can be misleading. They tend to be rhetorical words and their overuse can be used to mask a lack of content. Additionally, norms of decency and politeness entail that it is not always right or appropriate to express anger openly. Certainly, within the context of journalism, it sometimes is, but this should be a careful decision on a case-by-case basis.

I’ll end by returning to my mother’s original sentiment, that curses imply a lack of stylistic originality. Well, the works of Shakespeare, among others, provide us with a clear counterexample. However, I do think there is something like a grain of truth here. The rhetorical power of curse words derives in part from their sparing and deliberate use. They have the potential, like clichéd metaphors, to become dead quickly. Thus, part of the stylistic challenge of their use, when they are appropriate, is also deliberating leaving them out elsewhere. Finding an appropriate substitute is a creative act. Using a dead expression, like using a cliché, is not. If an author insists on using them this way regardless, then maybe she would be better off not writing anything at all.

 

Contact Cam Hubbard at camh502 ‘at’ stanford.edu.