Note: This article touches on slut shaming, body shaming, homophobia, and ableism.
I love swearing. It’s a weekly miracle that my essays don’t include “totally fucked” or “fucked up and bullshit” in every paragraph. If I were reborn as a linguist, I would study swearing and cursing. I watch documentaries about cursing, I play a lot of Cards Against Humanity, and this interview with Melissa Mohr, the author of Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing is my favorite episode of Slate’s just-nerdy-enough podcast Lexicon Valley. If you’ve been in the audience when I give a presentation, you probably (despite my efforts to the contrary) heard me swear five or six times. I would hate to live in a world without swearing because it would be fucking dull. Unfortunately, my (and most English-speaking people) love of swearing comes into direct contradiction with inclusionary social politics. I need a new arsenal of swear words that punch up and tear down destructive stereotypes. Every time I swear, I want to be totally confident that I’m offending the right people.
Swearing, while not its only function, has a lot to do with offending people. Swearing is a necessary social sanction that does a lot of good in the world. There will always be people in this world that deserve to be told off. (Like my neighbor for example.) But in the process of telling each other where to shove it, we also reaffirm and establish who in the world is desirable and who is unwanted. So if I call you dumb, stupid, lame, gay, retarded, or even a girl, I’m not only saying that women, non-cis gendered people, or the differently abled are inherently bad, I’m also invoking all of the power of ableism, homophobia, and patriarchy to make you feel bad. Too many curse words strengthen the kind of social structures that we should be dismantling. I want to quickly and easily compare people to the parts of society that I find gross and unseemly. I want words that compare people to those with ill begotten wealth or obscene power but, so far, calling someone the President of the United States of America doesn’t have the sticking power it should.
Efforts to consciously and directly alter language rarely work, so producing a new collection of commonly used swear words is going to take more effort than making some up and putting them in a list. I do not want to rely on the “fetch” method of consciously injecting new words into daily conversation. That’s not to say such efforts are hopeless or naïve—putting a word to a feeling or a phenomena is the beginning of all sorts of movements and cultural revolutions—but I get the feeling that swear words just need to feel right. They need to come out of your mouth without a second thought.
The good news is that there are two large sociotechnical trends that work in our favor. The first is economic stagnation. Mohr, in the aforementioned Lexicon Valley interview, notes that the social taboo against swearing has everything to do with keeping your status. The very poor and the very rich (two classes that continue to grow in our present economic situation) have always been comfortable and blatant in their swearing. Swearing bares no risk if you don’t have anything to lose or are so well-heeled that there is no one else in the room that you need to impress. Only the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie are afraid of swearing. One could say that the socioeconomic climate is primed for swearing experimentation.
The second trend is the decentralization of media. Podcasts, YouTube videos, blogs, and even Netflix and Hulu exclusive content are all subject to far less regulation than radio or television. The words you cannot say on television are still the same, but there are plenty of other venues to test out new swear words. It’s strange then, that given all the Internet-inspired new words that have made it into dictionaries over the past decade (e.g. tweet, defriend, uplink), none of them are swears or curses. You might stop me here and say that those press releases are just ways of ginning up press for a dying institution– some shameless link bait by people that don’t really know what that means. I think that’s besides the point entirely. After all, what would be more press-worthy than a word you can’t say in polite company? And yet, the offerings remain scant. I guess I could call you a Scumbag Steve but in the heat of the moment I’m probably just going to call you a motherfucker.
Perhaps that’s just it. Most of the communicative innovation of the past decade has used photos, illustrations, video, and emoticons to express a feeling or an idea. As Jenny Davis wrote a few years back, memes are the mythology of our digitally augmented society. They don’t make arguments; they are the dominant ideologies of our time. I can offend you with an Insanity Wolf meme in ways that my parents probably couldn’t, but its going to use the same lexicon that they had. I’m not suggesting that this is a zero-sum game where we either get new words or new memes, but perhaps I’m looking for the wrong thing. Maybe new curse words won’t do as much culture work as I think they will because the fight has moved elsewhere: Away from utterances and towards a more heterogeneous system of self-expression.
Be that as it may, there’s no substitute for a new expletive to yell at people who cut you off on the highway. I’m not going to end this with a call for more swear words because that would be missing the point. Rather I’d like to see some words that are already in widespread use in relatively small communities (I imagine ShitRedditSays has a few.) and descriptions of how they came into being. I don’t think we can purposefully recreate moments where new words are born, but we can certainly foster an attentiveness or sensitivity to modes of evocative expression that rely solely on utterance. Perhaps, instead of copying and pasting something you whipped up on memegenerator.net, try to mash some words together. We could really fucking use some new ones.
David is on twitter god damnit: da_banks