To swear or not to swear

Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn, said Clarke Gable in Gone With the Wind and walked off into the sunset. Supposing he hadn’t been so frank, would he have said “damn”? “Let’s be clear, my dear, I don’t give it a thought,” is not in the same weight category, nor is “My dear, I can’t be bothered, so let’s finish the movie and go out for dinner”.

The point is, swear words have a role to play in life. This was something my teachers in school didn’t understand, making me write “I shall not use foul language” 100 times — or 500 sometimes — if I used the word “bloody”. When you use foul language, they told us, it is a sign that you are of low intelligence, a vulgarian in fact. It shows you can’t think of the right word, that your upbringing is all wrong and your ancestors are disappointed in you. Only idiots use words like that, they said, in case I hadn’t got the message yet.

So much anger over such a simple word! I never got such lectures even when I made silly mistakes in arithmetic. As I grew older and became aware of more interesting and popular swear words, the diagnosis stuck with me. Don’t say @#* or you will be thought of as a creature of low intelligence. Schools are both fountains of knowledge and dispensers of prejudices.

But times have changed, even if it is too late for me. Psychologists have shown that swearing may in fact display more, rather than less intelligence. Pretty silly it will make my teachers feel, I fancy. The psychologists are from Marist College in the U.S., and they have trashed the POV theory or the ‘Poverty of Vocabulary’ theory popular in my school days which suggested that to use swear words was to confess to a lack of education and breeding.

Thanks to indoctrination at school, however, my language in adult life seldom had any swear words. It was, like oxygen – colourless and odourless. Perhaps taxi drivers and everyone who came in contact with me were saying behind my back, “This guy is unintelligent and ill-bred for he does not use swear words.”

So both as a boy and as a man I have been misunderstood, misjudged and mistaken for being something I was not. I am tempted to let out a short, common word in frustration, but my training gets in the way. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Next time you hammer your thumb rather than the nail or stub your toe on the footpath, don’t hold back. Say **&%## with pride, secure in the knowledge that you are being intelligent.

I, on the other hand, will gently say, “Oh that-place-with-fire-and-brimstone-which-is-in-the-opposite-direction-from-heaven” and hope the pain goes away. Or not. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a rodent’s donkey.

Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu

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Printable version | Aug 13, 2022 4:34:24 pm |