Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Blue Air

Does it seem to you that language has taken a turn for the worse, lately? Maybe it's the day job I have-- people are hurting, sick, miserable and sometimes they react badly to things they don't want to hear. But it seems to me that a lot more people use cursing and foul language to express themselves than previously. Or maybe it's just me. After all, I hear it in movies and on television all the time. Why should it bother me so much in person? Well, it does. That's all I can say.

I still get a jolt when somebody drops the F-bomb in my presence-- even if it's not said in anger. Does that make me old fashioned or overly sheltered? And when somebody says "Oh My God" I still cringe a bit inside. In my family of origin, using God's name that way was grounds for major discipline. Vulgarity (Crudities like "crap" or "shit) was considered rude, unacceptable, and unladylike. But profanity was another whole level of offense. . . it had much more serious consequences and was forbidden under any and every circumstance. Probably the root of my visceral reaction to such talk. To this day, hearing someone say "God damn" really sets me off. Even after 20+ years as a writer, immersed in the study and use of words, I still react to that phrase.

You'd think by now that I would have evolved past all of that. It may be a tribute to the power of language that I haven't. Language and how we use words is very important to me. Excessive parsing of words (legalese, etc.) is not what I mean. I'm talking about the honest impact of words meant to convey meaning and ideas. And words meant to express our highest and lowest and most powerful feelings. I learned early on the power of language to make or break an idea, an image, or a reputation. Gossip was another cardinal sin in my family household. I'm still uncomfortable with gossip. . . even though I sometimes find myself listening or passing on a juicy tidbit. Old habits and attitudes die hard.

That said, my mom had one word she used in times of extreme duress. "Shit" A perfectly good anglo-Saxon word, strong and to the point. But considered even by her to be vulgar and off limits. We as kids knew it was "mom's word" and giggled wickedly (privately) when we heard it from her. It was sort of confirmation that she was human and fallible. . . and gave us permission to not be perfect, too. Interestingly, I use that word myself sometimes. Can you inherit vulgar words from your parents?

For good or for ill, I find myself judging others by the words they speak. I don't necessarily condemn people as immoral or irredeemable because they curse. . . I just decide that I don't want to be around them. That kind of judgment I feel totally entitled to make. Because the people we surround ourselves with seep into us and we pick up their habits and modes of expression and their attitudes. We can't help it; we humans are simply constructed that way. And if I have someone use those words at me in a business context-- I'm torn between walking away (hanging up) and telling them just how offensive I really think they are. Interestingly, some people seem so used to using such language that they don't even realize they've done it-- in their minds they were just a little peeved and expressing it. "No harm, no foul."

What about you? Do you find yourself growing deaf to all the vulgar and profane talk you hear these days? Or do you still feel a little squeamish when you hear or use it? Do you have a favorite four-letter word? Ever had somebody aim curses and f-bombs your way in anger? How did you react?

I've heard some people say they feel more free, more grown-up, even more powerful when they curse or use four-letter-words. What about you? Is it a matter of breaking free of sexist, patriarchial restraints for you?


Michele Hauf said...

I still cringe. Unfortunately, today's youth use foul language all too often, and they don't care how loud they say it or how crowded the public venue is. It hurts me because I wish someone would have taught them that it isn't polite.

I rarely swear, really have to feel it to do so, and can count on one hand how many times I do it a year. But I recall the one time I used the f-bomb in a restaurant. The hubby is getting a little hard of hearing. I'd repeated myself three times, and finally just said F that (in a very quiet voice that was mostly a whisper, because I don't want others to hear it), and my teenage son was so stunned, he immediately texted his sister to inform her mom had just used a bad word. :-) It was sort of funny then. But seriously, I believe there is a time and place for it, and that time is not very often.

I wonder if the currents generations find the (offensive) words not so offensive simply because they are used by them, and around them, so often? Doesn't have any impact for them?

Helen Brenna said...

I swore like a sailor before I had kids then zip. Nada. Didn't want my kids swearing. Now that they're older, I find myself slipping back into it. No doubt you guys have cringed a few times in my presence! LOL

But it doesn't have anything to do with feeling more grown-up or powerful. I think it's simply habit/laziness on my part.

Before I turn in my manuscripts, I honestly have to do a curse word search and delete or all my characters would sound like sailors!!!

Jill said...

I cringe depending on the situation. I don't feel it as all appropriate at work, even if everyone around me is doing it.
My mother actually did and does swear like a sailor (well, she did marry one) and from a fairly early age, I made a point of not swearing. I told everyone I was setting a good example for my mother :-)
So in general, I don't swear, but yes, I have been known to swear when I am very angry or have a point to make. And thanks to my mother, I can swear very colorfully and creatively. . .

ForestJane said...

I was raised not cussing, and still don't. Being a librarian, working with the public every day, that's a GOOD thing... :)

To this day, the worst cuss word my mother will let pass her lips is a whispered *damn.* And that's after she's dropped a full bowl of hot mashed potatoes on the floor at Thanksgiving.

Helen, have you considered setting up the autocorrect in your word program to automatically fix your curse words? You know, like when you mistype teh for the, and the computer adjusts it for you as you're typing. You can set it so when you type "god damn" that it corrects to "gosh darn" instead. ;) I guess if you wanted, you could even set a Gentle Reads mode, so you'd get "oh, my gosh!" instead... lol

Helen Brenna said...

LOL, Jane. Nope. No "gosh, darns" in my books either!

Loralee said...

Oh, Betina, this topic brings back memories of growing up as a P.K. There wasn't even a "darn" allowed in our house. I, too, shudder at the use of Goddamn. Don't even like to write it here. But I'm no prude, by a long shot. I catch myself saying "OmyGod" and immediately hear my Dad's big voice from above, "Loralee, what did I tell you about that? God's listening to you." And you know, since I'm pretty sure Daddy's sitting right next to the Holy Father, I always say, "I'm sorry."
Once a P.K. always a P.K., I guess.

Betina Krahn said...

Hey guys! I've been away from the computer for a while and I just read what I wrote in the blog and thought-- boy, is that girl uptight! Didn't mean to come off so fussy and judgmental. It's just that I've had a few instances at work lately where people blow up on the phone at our staff or go a little off during and office visit and blue the air.

It shocks me to hear people talk to others like that. And I usually have to take up the phone and try to put out the fire. I guess that's my role during the day-- making peace of sorts. Still, there are times I bite my tongue and times I tell it like it is. Had to dismiss a patient from our practice the other day for cursing at our staff on the phone. She swore to me she didn't do it; I think she honestly believes she didn't. But I was there when it was happening and saw the clerk's face. She went white as a sheet and pulled the phone from her ear-- and she's a hip 20-something, who isn't easily shocked.

Anyway, I've written characters who use plenty of four-letter words. It's kind-of fun if done in the right way. And my tolerance for cursing is fairly high when it comes to alpha males. Okay, so sue me. I've got a little double standard going here. . . lol.

Keri Ford said...

fun topic Betina. I rarely curse (my characters do more than I--but they're usually in crappy situations that call for it).

I've never used GD in a story and when I see it in a book, I just read over it. doesn't really bother me, just one of those words that i don't use.

When DH started construction work, his language went with it. we started a "I get to punch you in the arm if you curse" game. It didn't take long before both our mouths were cleaner :-)

To this day I never curse in front of my mom (even though she says them) and I'm not sure I've ever heard her say them in front of her mom (my grandma!)

Betina Krahn said...

Loralee, I had forgotten you were a P.K.! I was a T.K. (teacher's kid) and my mom was always under scrutiny in our small community. So I guess we had something to live up to, too.

Keri, I think if my mom were here, I'd have a hard time saying anything with four letters in her presence, either. Moms have that effect, I think. I know my boys are a lot freer with their language away from me than they are with me. (Don't ask how I know!) And now one of them is a parent himself and really works to curb his tongue.

Jill, interesting that your mom was the one with the colorful vocabulary. And that you didn't develop the same way. Maybe it skips a generation-- lol!

Michele, I think it is a matter of what you hear around you-- what your peers are saying. It's so commonplace now on television and in movies that I almost don't hear it there any more. But in person, it still has a big impact.

Forest Jane, thanks for the suggestion about replacing words-- I have to chuckle when I think about what some books I've read recently would be like if that was turned on. JR Ward and her Black Dagger Brotherhood, for example. Imagine those big, alpha vampires spouting "fudge" and "gosh darn" all over the place. ::grin:: Might be worth trying, just for the giggles!

Thanks everybody for someing out to comment! Have a great week!

KylieBrant said...

I think there's been a general deterioration of civility in our society. One only needs to listen to the so-called infotainers, who appear to have no personal boundaries about the things the say about public figures, or the language they use to say it. There's a need for conflict resolution among children and teens who turn to violent language and behavior to solve problems. I don't know where it'll end but I do agree that civility has taken a nosedive over the last twenty years.

Debra Dixon said...

I've hell and damn pretty regularly.

But I grew up in a house where that wasn't permitted. My son was probably 25 before he gave up pretending in front of me that he didn't use grown up curse words.

I think the world and language has changed. We forget some things we say were scandalous in the early part of the last century and no one bats an eye now.

Language evolves.

Terry Odell said...

I'm mixed. We cleaned up our language when we had kids. They would ask permission to use a Bad Word when they were upset.

In writing, if it's in context, I don't mine. I know one of my editors didn't like a specific word, but she accepted that the character might use it.

As a matter of fact, normally I have to figure our each character's "go to" curse word, whether it's "Darn" or something stronger.

Jess said...

Well, I think I knew most words in the book by the age of eight... But I was all about context. There was a right and wrong time to swear. But it was shocking to hear my grandmother say "shit". She waited until we were grown up, tho, to say it.

Venus Vaughn said...

People I've known for months often are surprised to hear that I swear. They usually inform me that they know I don't curse because they've never heard a curse word cross my lips.

This is both reassuring and amusing to me. It's also a clear indicator that they don't know me that well. I am not afraid of curse words, nor do I cringe when I hear them. In fact, I often keep my ear turned, waiting to hear the next most inventive turn of phrase so I can rope it into my vocabulary.

Yes words are powerful, but it's up to the listener to decide how much power they have. The discerning listener knows when a word is hurled with the intent of hurting someone, or merely exploded out of a mouth like a pressure cooker letting off steam.