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Davis, California

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Column: Profane or profound?

Other than using “hella” and referencing the freeways incorrectly by forgetting to use an article, I’ve noticed another distinction that fuels the NorCal vs. SoCal debate: swearing. I might be living in a skewed sample since Davis seems to be the friendliest city in the world, but the NorCal crowd just doesn’t use profanity as much as SoCal residents do. All the sunshine and nice beaches must make people dirty-mouthed sailors.

As an on-again-off-again proponent of using profanity in everyday life, I like to think of curse words as “sentence enhancers.” But, it’s not like I am going to start telling my professors to go to hell when they give pop quizzes. Like any fun activity in life, profanity can come with some consequences.

Swearing can be a good thing, like dropping the f-bomb after stubbing your toe. A study done at Keele University in England concluded that swearing can be beneficial when it comes to pain relief. Swearing while in pain leads to an increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate and a decreased amount of perceived pain. The scientific logistics as to why this happens aren’t very clear, but it might have something to do with swearing being linked to our emotions.

Speaking from personal experience, profanity also acts as a good form of stress relief. Screaming obscenities at my frustrating homework does make me feel a little bit better. Speech-language pathologists have also been known to use profanity as a therapy technique for promoting speech fluency. Cue the scene in The King’s Speech where Colin Firth rapidly fires off every curse word his character knows, the scene that gained the film its R rating.

This strange set of words can be used for a good purpose, but most of the time, that’s not the case. In a perfect world, sticks and stones would break our bones, but words could never hurt us.

Apparently, words can hurt us, or at least human governments have thought so. Some people’s fascination with the need to suppress profanity can be traced back to the Third Commandment. Throughout history, countless groups of people have been denied the ability to voice their opinions. It’s really not the words that people have been afraid of, but the concepts they represent.

In case you weren’t paying attention in your high school history classes, we don’t exactly have complete freedom of speech in America. You can’t shout “Fire!” in a crowded public place. Spreading fraud and libel is a no-no. And, if the government thinks your utterances or images are “obscene,” they can ban them and fine you. Oh yes, they gon’ fine you, they gon’ fine you.

Obscenity laws make sense when it comes to children. The young minds of the future might become corrupted. I don’t think I would want my children listening to Howard Stern or stumbling upon an unedited version of Black Swan after their morning cartoons. Awkward explanations and nightmares would ensue.

Miss Manners might argue that if we allow swearing, we might as well get ready for a state of anarchy. OK, that’s a bit extreme, but the idea behind censoring “impure” language is to keep society as civil as possible. There are thousands of polite words to use in place of profanity, so why use words that seem to be inherently harmful?

Words have lives of their own. Their definitions and the connotations they carry are always changing. In the 1960s, “hipster” referred to a type of style in which your skirts or pants fit, not a stereotype for a group of people. In the 16th and 17th centuries, “salt” could also refer to a dog’s sexual desire.

The words we use have histories and sometimes social stigmas can become attached. The “n-word” is not just another entry in the dictionary. If a white person says it to an African American, we might assume that person is racist. But, if an African American person says it to another African American, we might assume the term implies a sense of camaraderie. It’s all about the context.

Swearing can be a great thing when you are trying to act cool, emphasize your point or get rid of an ice cream headache. It can make a punch line brilliant or be the perfect end rhyme for that poem you are writing. But, profanity can also lead to hurt feelings or other unpleasant effects. Time for some words of wisdom: Analyze before you act and think before you speak. It’s that simple.

Have a few choice words of your own to say? Tell CORRIE JACOBS at cljacobs@ucdavis.edu.

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