Sometimes I argue with people in my head. Not, you understand, that the people are in my head; that’s where the argument takes place. It often happens in the shower. An argument in my head, in the shower, with people that aren’t there. Welcome to my world.
I headed into the shower after wrapping up some email in hopes of figuring out what to write about today. All I could think about, however, was an email I’d received earlier in the day about a “No Swearing” challenge. Let me back up a minute. The Little Man is doing a monthly “etiquette” class this year and we get these weekly emails that are a kind of topical Emily Post for kids. Usually they are interesting and useful. One was on sunglasses etiquette, something that I didn’t even know existed. This week’s was a challenge to kids to stop swearing.
Now, I’m not one to use profanity in normal conversation. This is not because I have any objection to it. It’s just how I grew up. To this day, I don’t think I could use profane language in front of my parents, even when they use it. But I have no objection to it. If I’ve had a few drinks, I’m more likely to use it.
People are funny about profanity. It is one of those unpredictable things. People who I think wouldn’t use it, swear like sailors–which may be unfair to the sailors. Other people object to even mild profanity. For instance, in the first of my stories to appear in Analog Science Fiction (“Take One for the Road”, June 2011), one of the characters uses that opprobrious barnyard term for manure. Once. It’s the only profanity that appears in the story, and it was used because that’s exactly what that particular character would say. I had several objections from readers to my use of that word. Go figure.
There were things in this email, however, that I simply didn’t agree with. Some of it made perfect sense: English is a rich language, one in which remarks can be just as cutting or effective without profanity as with it. I agree with this. This was also Isaac Asimov’s approach. He would rather find a clever way of saying something profane without actually using profanity. This makes sense to me and this is often my approach.
But then, the message goes on to say that swearing often doesn’t make sense. As an example, think of someone saying they are “pissed off.” What does a bladder have to do with being angry, the email asks. Here is where I begin to disagree. As Spock says in Star Trek IV, these are colorful metaphors, and they apply to much more than just profanity. If someone says they were “hammered,” no one is going to think that someone was literally hitting them with a hammer. In my imagined argument in the shower, I asked this person, “Well, if ‘pissed off’ makes no sense, then shouldn’t we take ‘head-over-heels in love’ off the table as well? Or is someone literally head over heels when they are in love?
Profanity is just another form of expression, one that has been increasingly accepted in my lifetime, even if I avoid using it. Also, it is often just a phase that we grow out of. I went through such a phase around 7th grade, where the slang word for the act of reproduction became a part of speech in our day-to-day chatter among friends, as in: “We went to the BLEEPin’ movies and got some BLEEPin’ popcorn.” It was an empty word, like “like” that filled a grammatical void. After hearing myself, I thought my sentences sounded ridiculous and I gave it up. When I first took Spanish in 8th grade, our teacher taught us the profanities so that we wouldn’t use them by mistake. That’s more than I can say of any English teachers I had up to that point.
The email set up a false dichotomy between those who use profanity (poor standard) and those who don’t (high standard) which I simply don’t believe exists.
This is the argument I had in my head while in the shower. When I finally won the argument (in my head) I went to turn off the shower, and then paused. “Oh, shit!” I said.
I couldn’t remember if I had washed my hair or not.
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