Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Fun with Language

When Norman Mailer published “The Naked and The Dead” he used the made-up word “fug” to replace the common four letter expletive. He was vilified by some critics and fellow writers, but his novel is a classic and the substitution probably helped him to dodge unnecessary criticism and reach a larger audience. His compromise is still the occasional subject of literary studies on censorship. When I first read the book I, too, was disturbed by the use of the word “fug”, but the writing was so strong that I quickly overlooked it and only intermittently stumbled when it appeared on the page.

 “Swearing makes you sound stupid.”

“When you talk like that, you’ve wasted your education.”

“It sounds like you don’t know any better.”

“Your use of four-letter words is insulting.”

I live in a profane world. Anger and coarse insults have always been shouted in the schoolyard, at work, at the table. Steady vocal eruptions of anger and jealousy, envy and greed were part of the foundation of middle class, blue collar life. For a child, verbal expression was difficult in standard day-to-day activities and conversation. Who could a kid talk with? His teacher, parent, coach? Not in this world. You got hit in the face with a baseball? Walk it off, shake it off, turn it off.
Impure thoughts? Sinful. How does a fifteen year old boy not have impure thoughts every three to eight minutes? I couldn’t control mine, I know that, and with the help of the Catholic Church and a moralizing government, narrow-minded teachers and the babbling of unqualified authority figures, I spent my adolescence trembling with guilt and unable to stem the flow of images and desire. Desire which I acknowledged. A lot.
When contemplating, daily, the lives of those who had more than I had, more than they deserved, a sense of self pity engulfed me. I looked at their stuff and knew that my baseball mitt, shoes, car, were not as good, so neither was I. A lot of emphasis was put on what you owned. At fourteen I couldn’t figure out the socio-economic equation that created my place in the class system so, to alleviate my denigration, I learned to steal and swear and wear dark clothing. A friend shoplifted sweaters from clothing stores, and another took liquor from his parents and their friends. I stole books and felt fine about it. It doesn’t sound like a remarkable rebellion; actually, it’s a wimpy way to lash out, but reading, for me, could be as distracting as alcohol.

And swearing.

Man, could I swear. I loved the fricative sound of four letter words in my mouth and watching the faces of those around me when I let loose with a litany of vulgarity and anatomical curses. It was invigorating. My parents hated it, they shouted threats, but I was potent with words. I tried to keep my mouth shut when I was being scolded by Sister Mary Benigna, but inside, just at the boundary of my teeth, an instant before the lips part and sound becomes detectable, I was clicking my teeth and nattering the most horrifying descriptive dirt about her heritage, her vocation and her body.
If I was cut from a sports team, the coach or captain was drowned in a blazing satanic river of pre-verbal excrement as I looked at the ground or faked attention.
It was when I was with my friends that I found I could shock and disgust with volume and assurance. Even they, those young men from similar backgrounds, angry, repressed, guilty and newly criminal, even they asked me why I swore so much. That was when I knew I had a gift.
I went through college at a time when it had become OK to curse in class, it was part of our academic freedom, as long as it was “germane to the discussion”. I didn’t care about the discussion, my achievements in reading and writing were pretty good, and I could get attention with my ability to offend. My grades didn’t suffer, but my university experience was not as pleasantly social as that of my classmates. Other students engaged me in conversation, but after a short time they would wince and excuse themselves in order to get to the next class.
I played drums in a rock and roll band and there was never any criticism unless my timing was off. Who cares if the drummer has a filthy mouth as long as he can hit hard and fast?
I worked in a warehouse and found that I was competitive with the most threatening and angry employees.
I drank in bars that served cheap potent drinks to hard men and women who had little education and less opportunity. I was a noise that was only intermittently noticed by the sputtering clientele. When I could silence a group of ignorant drunks with an especially revolting stream of sewage, I was proud. 

This month, I’m trying not to swear around innocent bystanders and I’ve had around ninety percent success. There are still those who have been offended, but the experiment has been, for me, dramatic.

Three weeks ago I was at a gathering and, for an instant, all the other conversation dropped away and I heard myself giving an opinion concerning something I cared about, but I was expressing that opinion with prejudice and shocking profanity. I looked around the table and realized that I was dismissed by my tablemates as a big mouth who was not to be taken seriously. I was annoying.
Sadly, there was a time when I considered being annoying an accomplishment. Twenty or thirty years ago I took pleasure in sending others on their way, watching them shake their heads in dismay.
No longer. I really don’t want more friends, I try not to encourage acknowledgment from my family, and I’m not offensively seeking attention any more. That’s a young man’s game. Being loud, cocky, aggressive, those are the traits of someone who is full of doubt and I’ve worked for a long time to be free of doubt. Ignore me and I’ll probably be alright. I don’t actually believe it matters what others think, but I don’t have to show it dramatically. Perhaps this is part of getting older, self esteem and contentment. A breakthrough, or a diminishing of the senses?
When I write, I use any words I want in a short story or an essay; a character in a novel can cover all the trashy ground I’ve already been over. I’m simply trying to re-train myself to use spoken language a bit more discreetly. I want to be effective in my communications and infrequent conversations.
Alone, I still use extremely bad words. When I hang up the phone, no matter who I’ve been talking too, an insurance company, a friend, the dentist’s office, I follow up “Good-bye” with a wretchedly insulting phrase full of sexual and bodily impossibilities. It’s a habit. From the comfort of my vehicle, I loudly snap out smatterings of vocal muck at other drivers. I don’t believe it is Tourette’s syndrome, though I have been accused of suffering from that sad, debilitating condition. It’s another experiment in word usage, not unlike the research I was doing in my early teens.
It hasn’t been easy getting through the day. I have to really explore  my entire database. What can I use instead of “P...M...ing...C…ing…S...”? How about “Inbred Stool-Swilling Pool of Vomit”? Catchy, no? Each word could stand on it’s own, medically, environmentally, without too deeply offending even the most prudish.
 In the end, I may give up and go back to churning out lewdness and filth for effect. It’s a relief to cut back, though. I have so fugging much less to say.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, reminiscent of our last conversation, and though I know there are those who wish you would resist the urge to "communicate more effectively", bravo-

    It reminds me of an excercise I did in class one day after a nearly physical altercation between a young lady ( I use that term loosely) and a young man (again, for lack of the laborious task of selecting the more accurate adjectives) who nearly came to blows over his addressing her as a "fucking slut".

    On the board in our classroom, after they'd been separated and wrangled into their seats, I wrote the two words: Fucking - Slut The point of the excercise was to allow them to experientially feel the power that words had the ability to create. We, the listeners give that power to what we might hear, and the lesson went on.
    Under "Fucking" we wrote it's synonyms. Intercourse, Sexual Congress, Mating, Fornication (on ad nauseam) Under "Slut" was whore, prostitute, concubine, strumpet.

    At the end of class, all smiles and full of a new repitoire of potentially offensive language, my class adjourned, with students referring to one another as "fornicating strumpets" ..perception and intention are everything. It was a great reminder to me that I could speak sweetly with an intention to cut and achieve my goal, as well as good-naturedly address a trusted friend with all manner of filth and be met with a smile. : )