I got a great birthday card, the front of which said:
Dear people of the World,
I don’t mean to sound slutty,
But please use me whenever you want.
A great card on several levels. The “use me” is so much more economical than most of the explicit things one could think of, and therefore allows for (salacious) imagination, reminding me to be careful in writing to give the reader license to create her own vision of what I describe.
Which leads to the f-word (really?). I’m just thinking of the so-called dysphemism treadmill, in which a vulgar word becomes more and more acceptable. Pamela Hobbs, quoted in Wikipedia, notes that usage of the f-word falls into two categories: non-users and users. Non-users define the word in its proud Anglo-Saxon context and therefore consider it obscene and rarely use it. Users, on the other hand, have dissociated the word from sex and make frequent use as an intensifier, noun, adjective, adverb or verb. For them, as Hobbs says, fuck “no more evokes images of sexual intercourse than a ten-year-old’s ‘My mom’ll kill me if she finds out’ evokes images of murder.”
As a writer hoping to interest both users and non-users, my take is very, very abstemious use of the f-word (see, at my core, I’m a non-user, except when irritated). My rationale is that users usually employ fuck in ways that add no value to the sentence (although sometimes to the meter). None of that is useful in storytelling unless establishing a character’s unique voice.
So most of the time, I’ll go fuck-less. Grammar, on the other hand, I shall use and use and gratefully use.
Hi, John. This is a fun one. I am assuming that the greeting card text is a poem; otherwise, the capital “B” on “But” would be incorrect, and I am sure that Grammar would not make that error.
I, too, tend to be a non-user except as an occasional expletive or as a humorous aside. However, every year in nearly every high school class that I taught, the first time that I heard a student use profanity, I launched into a ten-minute routine akin to Carlin’s “Seven Words” that explored the use of profanity and vulgar words such as shit, fuck, prick, asshole, and bitch as well as slang in general, pointing out the relative meaninglessness of such usage since, as you suggest, they can become nearly every part of speech, and they can even have directly opposite meanings. Although the use of this word in this way has generally ended, I developed the routine during its heyday. The discussion culminated in the word, “bad,” which, at the time was used to mean both “terrible and “great”; e.g., “This tastes really bad!” and “This tastes really BAD!”
The point, of course, was two-fold: One, to clarify that profanity was inappropriate in my classroom; Two, to suggest that in intellectual discourse and written analysis, slang was ambiguous and limiting and that developing our vocabulary with the goal of more precise communication was a laudable goal.
Ironically, in over thirty-five years of giving that “speech” to high school students (from freshman to seniors), I never had a single parent complaint about my use of profanity or “inappropriate language” in the classroom.
P.S.: This absence of complaint was also true of my discussion of stereotyping and ethnocentrism which I began with every derogatory expletive for every group that I could think of. The identification of stereotyping, ethnocentrism, and bias was a thread that ran throughout our exploration of American literature.
Fucking great post, John. Grammars are good, two.