Q: What is the social significance of cussing?
A: Do we have to say cussing?
It is a euphemism. It is a terrible word, like tummy or fanny. It is putting pantaloons on piano legs.
It also demonstrates the power we ascribe to words.In the Old Testament you couldn't even speak the name of Jehovah, let alone take His name in vain. In the world of magic, to know someone's true and secret name was to have power over him. As in Rumpelstiltskin.
To curse someone, to d - him to H-ll, was heavy stuff in an era when people didn't understand lightning or appendicitis.
These day's it is hard to find a swearer and swearee for whom names like God or Jesus Christ or Beezlebub have the same voltage. The only words that still carry much of an electric charge with most of us are the names of various parts of the body and body functions.
The christian saints tell us that the body is the temple of the soul, yet some people are repelled, disgusted and scandalized to be reminded that they, that you and I, that every person on earth and a lot more creatures besides have a rectum.
Astonishing. A perfectly legitimate word, straight from the Latin, an inhabitant of every dictionary. Worse than that, if you translate it from the Latin into its venerable Anglo-Saxon form of a - we have to keep it out of the paper because it has such high voltage that it makes some people's hair frizzle like the bride of Frankenstein.
Why is this?
Why are there titters in the audience every time someone in a movie says s - ? Why did a whole generation of Americans gasp when Clark Gable said d - in "Gone With the Wind?" Why do people under 30 wave the four-letter word like a revolutionary banner?
The answer is simple. It is a revolutionary banner. The powerless have to use any weapon they can get, and these may turn out to be rather bizarre. How does an infant express its independence and defiance of parents who are infinitely stronger, vastly more experienced, possibly smarter, have better eyesight, control the food supply and outnumber him two to one? He smears his feces on the wall. Not only does it subdue the parents for awhile; it makes a pretty design.
So what is a teen-ager to do about an establishment that sends troops against college students, puts grass-smokers in prison, commercializers every fad from pennies-in-loafers to witty sweatshirts, and patronizes the private language of the young by pre-empting it as fast as the kids can invent it?
Their solution in the '60s was brilliant: make a private language consisting of four-letter words. Let the trend-spotters try to pick up on that.
So. Anytime you need to know the DWQ (Dirty Word Quotient' of any group from a cocktail party to an office, just check it out for its revolutionary potential. High-potential are: the under-30s, working journalists, enlisted soldiers and grunts of all kinds, GS-1 to 11 employees, winos, assembly-line workers and hard-core intellectuals. The more enthusiastically you embrace the establishment, the lower your potential.
But what about Richard Nixon? Surely he was about an establishment as anyone could get? Not at all. From the very start, Richard Nixon was a revolutionary. He never did comprehend due process. Look: He bypassed the entire State Department with a single personal emissary. He bypassed Congress. In the end he tried to bypass the electorate itself.
Do not laugh at those who claim it was Nixon's bad language on the tapes that finally drove him from office. They are right. The American citizen knows a revolutionary when it hears one.
Still, one does hear some of the worst language in most chic and elegant circles. Eleanor Roosevelt, asked once to list the words not allowed in "polite society," replied simply, "I didn't know that there were any." This is basically a form of reverse snobbery, an in-joke, as when, say Mi-koyan digs Brezhnev in the ribs and chuckles. "You old Commie."
Now wise for someone outside his circle to try this. Woe betide the bumptious guest at a society party who hasn't first established his credentials before letting slip a blue note.
The central fact is that pure swearwords are totally stripped of their formal meaning. They are abstractions. They are sheer sound. A charming example is the young woman who got some dog manure on her shoe as she strolled with her in-laws. "Oh s - ," she said, "I stepped in the poopoo."
Notice, however, that the more vividly descriptive the swearword, the more difficult it is for the hearer to separate it from its meaning. Thus the high voltage of c - and m -.
Thus also the danger of using such words in anger directed specifically at the hearer. It is one thing to call your file fabinet a m - nuisance when you bark your shin on it. It is definitely another thing to address your supervisor this way, accurate or not.
Since the '60s, our national DWQ has risen spectacularly. Remember how Lenny Bruce actually was arrested for using those words in nightclubs? A couple of years ago Dustin Hoffman made a movie about him, words and all, and it got a mere R rating. Nobody even blinked.
Does this mean the revolution is making headway? Ah, no. It means, to the contrary, that the establishment has neutralized the weapon. Someone speculated recently that if Lenny Bruce were alive today he'd be a pretty tame item.
Uh uh. If Lenny Bruce were alive today he'd have discovered some other way of getting the authorities to run around like a drop of water on a hot skillet. He'd probably come out against fast-food or something. Now there was a revolutionary.