A long time ago on this blog I quoted Emerson:
What a pity we cannot curse and swear in good society! Cannot the stinging dialect of the sailors be domesticated? It is the best rhetoric, and for a hundred occasions those forbidden words are the only good ones. My page about 'Consistency' would better be written thus: Damn Consistency!
With Deadwood on my TV and Mamet in my bag, I have been thinking more about curse words.
For the generation above mine, and even more so for the generation above that, curse words were really just totally unacceptable. Their claim that the media desensitized my generation to these words seems to me quite right: I can very much remember watching Die Hard as a kid and my friends and I talking about how the word "fuck" was used with awesome frequency: something like 17 times. Wikipedia has the Deadwood pilot using the word 43 times, and the 36 hour series as a whole contains nearly 300 uses of the word fuck -- roughly three times every two minutes.
I am, obviously, discouraged from using curse words in the classroom. The rationale is that as a community college professor, whose students are very often the first in their family to attend college, it is my responsibility "to model the way educated people speak." Of course I see their point -- what David Foster Wallace calls Standard White English (SWE) is the language you need to know to get ahead in most professional environments, and that is the main reasons students are at BMCC -- they are not there pursuing the life of the mind, they are there to make more money. At the same time curse words can be a very powerful in breaking down barriers between myself, and students who feel like college is this massive intimidating thing where you learn "serious" thing above their heads; these are the students who do really well in my class, but then come to me and tell them they are nervous to read Shakespeare because he is so important -- then they discover he has more in common with Hollywood then some kind of super-educated occult secret society of world leaders, or whatever thing it is that they think makes Shakespeare above them. When they hear me speaking intelligently about Shakespeare and using a curse word now and then for emphasis, they see that their day to day lives do not have to be divorced from good literature. I actually very rarely curse in class, and when I do it is usually timed to get their attention with a striking turn of phrase about some poem I think is REALLY good. But I do have a great first week assignment on audience in which I read to them an Onion article entitled "Why Can't I sell Any of these Fucking Bibles." It is an editorial drenched in the most foul language, and I use it to point out that they must always consider audience in their writing -- it is not that it is wrong to curse (the guy in the article admits to being a fantastic auto-parts salesman), you just have to consider what will make sense in whatever situation you are in (cursing is NEVER acceptable in a college essay or when selling bibles).
There is of course, also something quite tricky about the rationale that I need to model the way educated people speak -- I am the guy setting the standard. However I speak, THAT is how educated people speak. Our students may need to sound like BBC broadcasters in their papers (though that is arguable), but I am not sure I want to give them the idea that being educated demands that they TALK like BBC broadcasters, at least not all of the time.
The saturation of curse words in the media has led to something genuinely interesting: the use of curse words as some kind of crazy inheritor of nonsense poetry. The word "expletive" comes from a the Latin word that means "empty" -- originally "expletive" referred to those words used in poetry only to finish the metrics of a line -- words that added only to the sound, and not at all to the sense of the passage. "Expletive" now, I assume, refers to the idea that curse words are empty of meaning. That is obviously arguable, in many cases curse words have very clear meaning, but often they do act as emphasis and nothing else, and make very little sense: what exactly is the "fuck" in "fuck you" mean? It really just amounts to throwing an offensive word -- regardless of meaning -- AT the person you are talking to. How about the "fuck" in "For Fuck's Sake" -- that one seems to be little more than a "For God's Sake" where "Fuck" has replaced God: the word "fuck" there is pure emphasis, with no meaning, and is the sound that works, rather than any particular sense.
It is on this point that the poetry of John Ashbery (for example) and Deadwood come together -- in this emphasis on sound over sense. Not that sense is gone -- just that it becomes secondary to the free floating sounds of word, and word associations (connotations) become more important that any precise dictionary definition. Mamet, Milch (Deadwood), and many others have created a kind of poetry of curse words. Here is Ashbery, at the end of Girls on the Run:
Does this clinch anything? We were cautioned once, told not to venture out--
yet I'd offer this much, this leaf, to thee.
Somewhere, darkness churns and answers are riveting,
taking on a fresh look, a twist. A carousel is burning.
The wide avenue smiles.
Obviously we can get lots out of that, but it reliant on connotation more than anything else: "leaf" can be the leaves of a page, the pages of this poem we are reading; "thee" is wonderfully old fashioned and feels formal now; something is changing, becoming new; childhood is a distant memory, like an old-fashioned carousel enjoyed by children of some distant age; childhood is in danger (burning); the future welcomes us optimistically.
Here is David Mamet (I know I put this up already):
Someone made this as a joke, but there is something in it about the pure force of language:
Mamet is not quite the same thing, but he is headed in that direction.