Some Parenthetical Remarks on Cursing


Years ago I went to see Glengarry Glen Ross, the film adaptation of David Mamet’s brilliant play. I had heard people swear, but never with the passion, eloquence and genius I was hearing in that movie. Since then I’ve encountered plenty of swearing in the media I consume, which is not to say that movie was the first time my virgin ears were sullied (I attended a Catholic school where, between students, learning to curse is as much a part of the day to day as learning to pray), it was just the first time I realized there was artistry involved in swearing well.

Now, as parents, my wife and I went briefly through wondering if perhaps we should curb our use of “naughty” words, and gave up pretty quickly. We chose to focus instead on explaining when swearing was appropriate (around our friends who don’t mind swearing) and when it was not (church, for example). We’ve felt it was better to take the shine off early, and as a result he doesn’t curse, at least in our earshot or in the presence of teachers or his friend’s parents.

Personally, I don’t tend to curse often. It’s not appropriate at work, and I don’t find many of my conversations reach the level of passion warranting expletives.  Mostly I wish we had the advantages of cartoons like the one above, where we could express all that emotion with random symbols and punctuation.  But, when they’re well used, I am a fan. In recent years Armando Iannuci has been the gold standard by which I measure so-called “base” language. From In the Loop (currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon) and the recently returned  The Thick of It (where Malcolm is my hero when it comes to giving offense) through his recent Emmy nominated HBO series Veep, where Julia-Louis Dreyfuss finally speaks the way you always knew Elaine would if not for the pearl-clutching major network censors.

I haven’t really used many curse words here, though. I suppose it comes largely for a place of wanting to appeal to as many readers as possible. I tend to imagine my readers browsing here on their lunch break at work, and I’d prefer they didn’t hesitate out of fear I would post something they didn’t feel was appropriate.  Having said that, if the best word to use is one considered impolite, I don’t really see any reason to avoid it.  We’re all (mostly) adults here, right?

Ultimately, I’m trying to remember that, what made the swearing so powerful in Mamet, and makes it so funny in Iannuci, is not the number of times each word is used, but the economy of choosing the perfect word for each situation.


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