By M Jones
Posted July 28, 2012
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“Don’t fucking swear!”
I remember those words well. They were spoken by my very frustrated aunt during a car ride to Nova Scotia. My cousin had been acting up the entire trip, and he’d decided to throw a few expletives at his tormented younger cousin (me) who had kicked him in the knee in retaliation to his usual torment. This was way before the creation of Nintendo and other portable gaming devices, the long trip broken up with invisible ink activity pads and plastic bubbles with puzzles trapped inside of them, the silver ball bearings never finding their way into the proper holes. Transister radios never came with headphone jacks. There was only so long you could peel the stickers off of your Rubik’s Cube before someone inevitably started a game of Punch Buggy which left your arm bruised and a few choice words on the tip of your tongue for your pimple faced cousin. But you never said them because you knew the rules. ‘Don’t fucking swear’. Your aunt, with the curlers in her hair hidden underneath a pink scarf and a miserable, screaming baby in her lap didn’t need to look at you twice. You knew the score.
But your stupid cousin never learned. By the time you got the 112th PUNCH BUGGY! from his fist, it didn’t matter that there was a five year difference between the two of you or that he was bigger. He was stupid and you had sneakers on. A good kick to the knee as hard as you could left him near bawling, and before he could control himself and start tattling on you, the swear words had poured out, and your aunt had enough. Hell, your uncle was threatening to pull the car over to the side of the road. Chaos reigned, and it rode topside along the letter ‘f’ and slid furiously down the final stroke of the letter ‘k’. Vindication for the oppressed was inevitable. Threats of getting his mouth washed out with soap were tossed into the back seat. My uncle said something unintelligble and my aunt retaliated with a few curses all her own. My cousin hated me, I hated him. The baby kept crying. All was right with the world.
I grew up knowing that no matter what my elders tried to make me believe, cursing does have its place. It’s an aural exclamation point. If someone has just shattered your kneecap, ‘gosh darn’ isn’t going to be the phrase you use. Cursing is a severe emotional release put to words. Its meaning can be interpreted as shock, distress, surprise, joy. Cursing is culturally defined, with some of these representative words coming from religion, body parts, turtle eggs, with the one we most commonly understand not having any real linguistic root whatsoever. My personal favourite is a French curse word, its vulgarity based on the mostly Catholic population of Quebec. Cursing in that province evolved from blasphemes against specific holy items within the church. When it was explained to a friend of mine that one of the most severe swear words in French is what holds the little cubes of bread for communion, my friend exclaimed, confused “You’re shouting ‘bread-box’ at me?”
It was fun to shout ‘Bread-Box!’ every time we thought it was vaguely appropriate, but when I stapled my thumb to my desk I admit, I reverted back to my native language. Bread-Box is the perfect word in that situation for my dear French Canadian friend, but it wasn’t going to cut it for me.
Cursing doesn’t just define culture, it also defines one’s social standing. I knew a routine swearer who let the f-bombs fly so fast and furious she couldn’t wish you a good morning without it being littered with curses. Many people who worked with her looked down on her for it, which wasn’t fair because she was an intelligent woman, but the long string of curses made those in the office look down their pince-nez glasses and categorize her with extreme prejudice. She talks like she just walked out of a trailer park, they said. She wasn’t of their upper echelon who didn’t swear every four seconds. She was low class. Yet, as I’ve said, given the circumstance, everyone is more than willing to give a big hug to the f-word for consoling when trouble arises. I’m betting the Queen Herself has a few words tucked into her subconscious that are released at will should a Louis IV dresser fall on her big toe. Cursing is all about feeling. Perhaps my friend had a very stressful life that deserved an f-word every four seconds. She was always a very happy person despite all of that angry language. I’m guessing if she didn’t have cursing as an outlet she might have become a serial killer. I would much prefer a “Good fucking morning. How the fuck are ya?” to a machete wielding maniac with perfect formal diction.
In that car, travelling through the summer heat where A&W burgers were force fed to us and my red faced uncle looked ready to have a stroke at any moment, cursing was a signal that we, the kids, were on a lesser notch on that totem pole and we’d better tow the line or else. Only the priviledged adult was allowed to swear. Now, I’m not saying my aunt was a routine swearer. She wasn’t. But emotions get the best of all of us, and it’s good to remember this when writing dialogue, because when a character is pressed against the wall with a dozen or so rabid crocodiles with lasers ready to set their knickers on fire, I truly believe it wouldn’t matter if they were an imam or a nun, a curse word is going to be uttered. This doesn’t mean all your characters need to be foul mouthed to be realistic, but the language they use should reflect the emotions they are feeling in that particular, adrenaline punched scene. If those rabid crocodiles take a good chunk out of your protagonist and all he or she utters is ‘Gosh!’ in response, you don’t have the emotional impact that a well placed curse provides. Instead, you have characters who sound like Napoleon Dynamite, which might not be what you’re going for in your hard boiled detective thriller complete with ninjas and zombies.
To curse is to be human. How a person curses and when they do says a lot about who they are as people, their cultural background and what others believe of them. Use cursing to your advantage when creating realistic dialogue among characters. Despite all prudish naysaying and the fact you still can’t say a lot of George Carlin’s banned words list on TV, cursing has its place in the human experience. In my uncle’s car it was an unspoken agreement that a taut line had been drawn and we were to remain quiet and no longer try to snap it. My cousin and I did as we were told, and through the relentless remaining hours on the road we had forgiven each other and had forged a truce. With my cousin on the left, and myself on the right, middle fingers were secretly raised to every car that passed ours, shocked faces and outraged honking horns greeting us. My uncle thought the highway drivers just outside of Montreal were a bunch of crazy so and so’s. My cousin and I exchanged glances and shrugged.
Cursing in sign language wasn’t yet a crime.
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