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Monday, February 21, 2011

Swearing: Just Words or Sinister Biological Remote Control?

For the longest time I always thought that the stigma on swearing was just cultural baggage and nothing else. The only magic put into those words is the value that other people assign them.

They're just words. That's it.


Forgive me for being ignorant but I always thought of swearing as a landmark achievement of civilized society.

I'm serious. What if you were a caveman and you just stepped on something really sharp?

How depressing that you can't properly express your pain. You're forced to spit out a guttural noise to try and alleviate yourself, but it's obviously not enough.

I mean, look at you! You're a caveman. You make Raaa! sounds all the time. Saying it again simply won't encapsulate your discomfort.

But in this modern world we're surrounded by languages that can help ease our pain.

There. Isn't that better? It's like you never stepped on the nail at all, and you're being funny at the same time, which is a much better scenario than the tragedy of realizing that the nail was rusty and you'll need to have your foot amputated because it's the year 1856 and tetanus shots haven't been invented yet.

And that's sort of how swearing works.

Or at least that's how I thought it worked. Especially the funny part.

But I've been doing a lot of research and according to my reliable sources on the internet, swearing is a primal act that has a lot to do with the overdeveloped, isolated language region of our brains. Even chimps (kinda) swear. It's sort of a self-defense mechanism meant to help ease psychological pain.

Yes, that's right. Swearing is scientifically proven to be good for you (and it has many other uses, as well).

The point I'm trying to make here is that until recently I'd always thought of swearing and its opposition as a meme, but in reality it's much more biological.

So, potentially, this could mean that people who don't like swearing might be something more than just a bunch of assholes who can't loosen up.

I'm not sure how I feel about that, so how about I share with you a story of the first time I swore:

I was in the first grade, it was recess and there was, as always, an impressive line for tether-ball.

Nothing was better than tether-ball, or at least nothing on the playground. You had an arena, you had spectators, you had an opponent, and you had a ball that you could hit as hard as you wanted; and if it knocked the other kid's teeth out then it wasn't really your fault because that ball is on a rope and you're not directly responsible for where it goes.

(We weren't gay-wads with the rules, either. Only two hits max and no holdsies. Having holdsies is like saying you don't care about civilized society and you'd rather just swing the ball around like an idiot. What's the point of playing the game if you can just throw the ball at a tall arc and bypass any chance your opponent might have of hitting the ball back?)

Anyways, if you won, you got to stay in that ring and face your next opponent. How cool is that? If you were good enough you could spend the whole recess playing tether-ball, non-stop. I didn't even like tether-ball and I still waited in line for my turn because I wanted to be the kid who could play that game all recess long.

Of course, for the moment, I was the kid waiting in line during recess while the other kids played other games around me.

So it was during my time waiting in line that one of the kids playing lost the game and blurted out, "Shit!"

A little background here: I'm sure my parents have sworn in front of me before this fateful day (their position on swearing is pretty lax. Big surprise given how I turned out, right?), but the key difference is that after they swear they don't make a big deal out of it. The word is nothing but the reaction is everything, so I was surprised when everyone waiting in line for tether-ball burst out laughing.

Obviously I found a new element in the game that made it more fun to play, so when I got my turn in the ring (and lost almost immediately) I yelled, "Shit!"

And guess what? Everyone laughed and it was amazing. I couldn't believe that just one stupid word could hold so much influence over my peers. It was like discovering I had a super power. I didn't need to be witty or think up jokes to be funny. All I had to do was say shit and presto! I'm hilarious (And in case you haven't noticed, what I've just said here is pretty-much the thesis statement of this entire blog).

I said it again, just to see if it still worked, and it did! And at this point everyone was having such a good time that I figured I might as well keep saying shit because it's a hell of a lot more fun than stupid tether-ball.

When the bourgeois yard duty swooped in on me I never saw her coming. It was pretty intimidating because this was the first time I'd ever witnessed her moving before. What I mean is: kids might be attacking each other or crying on the playground, like, thirty feet away from where she'd be standing and she wouldn't budge an inch. She always spent every recess just standing really still, like in this Zen trance, and she always wore these totally opaque No-Eyes sunglasses, just like in Cool Hand Luke, so you never knew if she was looking at you or taking a nap.

Like I said: this was the first time I ever saw her actually doing anything. It was disorienting and happened very, very fast; like an ambush from a one-woman SWAT team.

She hauled me off to this trailer-office-thingie, (I think it was the teacher's lounge or the library or something) and she presented me to this really, really angry guy who might have been the principal, or maybe one of the teachers. I'm not entirely sure what his position was at the school because he was so damn angry that I couldn't recognize his face. It was all very shady.

So this guy yelled at me for a while, and I mean he really yelled at me. In all my years I can only think of one other guy who ever got in my face and just screamed at me like that (another teacher, of course).

I didn't cry or anything like that. I was honestly too confused by the entire situation to decide on what I should be doing. I mean, it was obvious to me that I didn't do anything wrong but this guy was in my face like I'd committed double homicide on the playground.

And there was another kid with me, too. I didn't really notice him until we were together facing the angry guy. He wasn't the kid who originally swore and I didn't know his name or hang out with him, but I knew him by reputation. He had a bad record on the playground. Apparently bad enough that when I got in trouble this poor bastard was hauled in simply by law of proximity.

So when angry face is yelling at me, asking me if I know just how much trouble I was in, the kid next to me whispered, "Say yes."

I said yes, of course. This kid was a grade higher than me, which made him practically an adult by my perspective. To his credit he turned out to be a real life-saver. The interrogation was just so stupid and straight-forward that I felt like angry-face was trying to trip me up--catch me in some sort of logic trap. I wasn't ready to say yes or no to anything without some third-party consultation. Especially when I got asked whether or not I'd like to eat a bar of soap.

Now let me get one thing straight: Finger-breaking rulers and spankings in front of the class were the stories of generations long since grown up. I was a child of the eighties: boomer-spawn and practically royalty compared to how kids used to be treated by public education. Eating a bar of soap, even to my little-tot logic, was not something that happened in school. Even I knew that.

But the question left me baffled. What country was I in? What the hell was going on?

"Say no." My ally whispered to me.

So I said no and I didn't have to eat a bar of soap, although angry face kept on yelling until he finally let us go back to our classes.

And did I get into any trouble? Well, no, not really; which was strange. I guess since first-graders don't have a detention punishment the only thing the gestapo can really hold over your head is calling up your parents, and as far as I know my parents never found out about that shady little encounter, or if they did they didn't give a shit.

1 comment:

  1. At our house, swearing wasn't a big deal as long as you understood what you were saying. Which I think is a pretty good rule.

    To this day, I get awkward reactions from people who don't realize I'm cussing out the computer.