Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, August 16, 2014


Note:  because this post is about swearing, it contains some swear words.  Be thou forewarned.


I sometimes use some "strong language" in this blog, and every once in a while someone will comment on it.  I try not to make it gratuitous, but there are times when the only intensifier that seems appropriate is one that is... inappropriate.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

For example, I ended my post on the people using Robin Williams's suicide to score philosophical points with the phrase "shut the fuck up."  Could I have phrased it another way?  Sure.  But my opinion (and opinion it is) is that writing is an art form, for which language is the tool.  A writer uses his/her words to effect a response in the reader -- curiosity, anger, understanding, sadness, laughter, or any of a thousand other possibilities.  A careful writer therefore has to choose words that have punch and clarity.  And I would argue that there is no phrase that could be substituted for "shut the fuck up" that has the same dagger-like stab at the heartless individuals who were the subject of that post.

It's a fine line, though.  Swearing can become a habit.  When I was at the University of Washington, I fell in amongst a group of graduate students for whom swearing and obscenity peppered every conversation.  Simple statements were laden with all manner of bad language; you didn't "have to go to class," you "fuckin' had to go to class."  It was all too easy to fall in with that habit to fit in, and for a time I hardly uttered a phrase that didn't have some kind of inappropriate word in it.

And in this context, the word "inappropriate" is exactly the right descriptor.  It was gratuitous, unnecessary, used only to show how Tough and Modern and Rebellious the speaker was.  It added nothing, gave no emotional zing to the language.  It was a filler, no more laden with meaning than "uh" and "um" and "know what I mean?"

It's significant, of course, that so many swear words have sexual connotations, because let's face it: Americans have a hangup about sex.  But I think that labeling of words as "appropriate" or "inappropriate," "clean" or "obscene" goes far deeper than that.

The reality is, whether any language use is appropriate or inappropriate is contextual.  I discuss this at length in my Critical Thinking classes, starting with an example a little like my use of the f-bomb in my post two days ago.  I play for the class the song "Some Nights" by the band Fun, in which there is no "bad language" until the very end:
Five minutes in and I'm bored again
Ten years of this, I'm not sure if anybody understands
This one is not for the folks at home;
Sorry to leave, mom, I had to go,
Who the fuck wants to die alone all dried up in the desert sun?
The song is about war -- something that is not completely apparent unless you watch the music video.  But I would argue that that single use of a swear word turns that last line into a sucker punch, and the lyrics would have less emotional impact by the use of any other word.

As an illustration of how "inappropriateness" is completely contextual, another thing we discuss is the episode from Seinfeld called "The Bet."  In this famous episode, which may be the best-known one in the entire series, Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George make a bet over which of them can go the longest without masturbating.  Throughout the entire show, not once does any character use the word "masturbate" or any of its synonyms.  Although the whole show is about a topic that people like the eminent prude Brent Bozell would find distasteful and obscene, the censors couldn't find any legitimate reason to stop it from airing, or even anything to bleep out.

Was "The Bet," in fact, obscene?  The difficulty of answering that question was summed up in 1964 in the case Jacobellis vs. Ohio, which was about whether the movie The Lovers was obscene and deserved to be banned.  The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and in the majority opinion, Justice Potter Stewart said:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
We like everything to fit in neat little boxes with labels.  Words are either appropriate, or they're not; movies, television shows, books, and music are either obscene, or they're not.  Predictably, the reality is much more complex than that.  The impact that any media has on the person consuming it is always contextual, depending on the intent and skill of the person who created the media, and the background, attitudes, intelligence, and sensitivity of the person consuming it.  There are people who have been offended by my occasional use of a "bad word" here on Skeptophilia, and others who have applauded it; only to be expected, when every reader brings a different perspective to a piece of writing.

But I'm not going to apologize for occasionally offending.  As a writer both of essays and fiction, I try to use language with what skill I have, and am careful when choosing words that I know carry a lot of weight.  Sometimes what I intend is for the reader to have a visceral reaction -- whether that reaction is outrage, or a belly laugh from surprise.  If I've achieved that end, I've succeeded, even if I sometimes use a word that would have gotten my mouth washed out with soap when I was ten years old.


  1. Amen to that! I do not like swearing, but used judiciously it can pack a real punch.
    I used to call my kids (and still call babies) "cute little buggers", and then a friend from Canada told me that in England those words have a completely different, and inappropriate, meaning. You never can know...