Having grown up in a noisy household where even the parakeet liked to swear, I thought I knew a thing or two about creative cursing. That's before I saw Deadwood.
This brilliant HBO series, which aired from 2004-2006 (plus a terrific two-hour movie that premiered May 31, meant to bring fans up to speed on the town's progress, if you could call it that), concerns the birth and early years of a lawless mining town, awash in gold strikes, that attracts all sorts of characters (savory and otherwise) after the Civil War in what is now South Dakota.
Profanity is elevated to extraordinary heights here, especially as practiced by Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) the town's de facto showrunner, saloon owner, and commander of a troupe of prostitutes who have seen better days. The power he wields comes not only from a truly vicious temperament but from his command of verbal acrobatics--most of it so elegant and detailed that it could be mistaken for Shakespearean dialogue, were it not so incredibly, uniquely vile.
Others in town--Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), U.S. Marshal Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), and Al's devoted henchman Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown) do a creditable job of spitting out atrocious language as well, which somehow doesn't dull the keen impact of that much crudity in one hour.
The simplest speech in terms of cussing comes from Mr. Wu (Keone Young), Deadwood's opium dealer, disposer of inconveniently dead bodies, and local vice manager who, being Chinese and not conversant in English, pretty much limits his insults to one succinct, vehement word. He uses it well.
Avenue Q, the Tony Award-winning musical comedy staged recently at Little Rock's Weekend Theater, tosses out a few examples of socially unacceptable language, but since much of it is delivered by fuzzy, big-eyed Muppet-like puppet characters, the blow is softened. So is the effect of its other naughty behaviors such as excessive drinking, inappropriate sex, and porn-watching.
Although many of my betters believe swearing to be a sign of poor upbringing and defective character, I've always found it to be exhilarating, liberating, emphatic, and, when used at the right time and right place, hilarious.
Which raises the question: Why are some words considered vulgar? How did these words become ostrasized from polite society and condemned by parents, religious groups, print publications, and G-rated movies?
Answer: Through word of mouth over centuries of use.
Thanks to diving down rabbit holes on the Internet, the origin of obscenities starts with the word "profane," that as early as the 1450s meant "desecrating what is holy" or "with a secular purpose," in that it represented indifference to religion (unlike the more intense blasphemy, defined as an offensive attack on religion, which is considered sinful and a violation of the Ten Commandments).
The trend-setters of medieval times found out that once you start incorporating expletives into your personal lexicon, it's hard to stop. They're powerful because they provoke an emotional response.
Swearing, which describes bodily functions or sex, got more sophisticated over the centuries, eventually falling into five functional categories, according to Harvard psychology professor and linguist Steven Pinker:
• Abusive swearing, intended to offend, intimidate or otherwise cause emotional or psychological harm
• Cathartic swearing, used in response to pain or misfortune
• Dysphemistic swearing, used to convey that the speaker thinks negatively of the subject matter, and to make the listener do the same
• Emphatic swearing, intended to draw additional attention to what is considered to be worth paying attention to
• Idiomatic swearing, used for no other particular purpose, but as a sign that the conversation and relationship between speaker and listener is informal.
It's instructive that, according to online research creator Angus Reid Public Opinion (July 2010), Canadians swear more often than Americans and Brits when talking to friends; Brits are more likely than Canadians and Americans to encounters swearing during a conversation with strangers. And the more people swear, the higher their verbal and general IQ appears to be, says Benjamin K. Bergen, author of 2016's What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains and Ourselves.
Cursing is flat-out illegal in some countries, but not in the U.S.--hey, the First Amendment gives us a right to free speech. But it's frowned upon when used to incite riots or disturb the peace. And it's not wise to spit out salty epithets when having a contentious exchange with a law enforcement officer.
Most of us pick up curse words as we wander through life. Although my extended family (my dad had eight brothers and sisters, all loud and boisterous first-generation Americans) freely sprinkled profanity in their salty exchanges, there were some words I never heard until I was hanging out with classmates on the sixth-grade playground.
I still remember when an otherwise benign kid named Victor offered to tell me a joke, adding that it was about a four-letter word that describes sexual intercourse (he used the word, not the description). I cheerfully nodded assent, having no idea what the word meant, then laughed at what I figured was an appropriate interval.
That evening I had to ask my brother, three years older than me, what it meant, which gave him an excellent opportunity to indulge in directing some aforementioned abusive swearing at his naive little sister.
Victor, I later learned, grew up to be an ob/gyn. Go figure.
Back to that parakeet. His name was Wilbur. My mother never gave up trying to get him to say "pretty boy" by repeating it over and over again while holding the little blue bird on her finger (he'd have nothing to do with me).
Then, one evening when my dad's brother Mike strolled by Wilbur's cage, a Manhattan in hand, while describing a business associate as a "son of a *" to my dad, Wilbur perked up, abandoned scraping his beak on his cuttlebone, grabbed onto that phrase and never let go.
Neither Wilbur nor I knew it at the time, but that was probably an example of emphatic swearing--intended to draw additional attention to what is considered to be worth paying attention to.
Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.
Editorial on 07/28/2019