Some of my students who attended the reading were shocked—shocked!—by the language of the novel. And we had a pretty good discussion the next day (hampered a bit by the fact that the classroom chairs were bolted to the floor, and the young scholars in the front of the room had difficulty twisting around to face the YSs in the rear). Some of the students were practical—“How do you think soldiers talk, anyway?”—while others were idealistic—“You don’t hear President Bush talking that way!” And a couple of other students came up with, “Well, he must not have a very good vocabulary.”
Now it was my turn to be shocked! (Well, I was already a little bit shocked by the comments about President Bush). The poor-vocabulary line sounds like something one of my great-great 19th century schoolmarm aunts might have said. My students probably picked it up from their moms, who got it from their moms, or whatever, part of a line of smugness going back who knows how far back. The line probably made little sense in the 19th century, and it certainly makes no sense now. These words are just words, and sometimes they are the right words.
So I pondered on it a little, and the following semester I came up with a little lecture on curse words—what they really mean, how they’re used, how they are and sometimes aren’t offensive—based partly on a chapter from Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought, and partly on my own experience with cursing. It’s been one of the most popular things I do in class. When I was preparing to go on a job interview last spring, I asked my students what I should do for my teaching demonstration—and a majority of the class recommended the Lecture on Cursing.
Uh, no. Because there are times when curse words are very much not not not the right words…as we see in this article about a California track team which was penalized and lost the state championship after a pole vaulter said something, uh, nasty.
I remember a high school football game where the other team scored and one of our guys protested—“Hey, ref, he swore!” But our ref, unlike the California officials, was properly unmoved. A sporting event is not necessarily an inappropriate place for cursing....
Anyway, writing well—and thinking well—is a matter of choosing the right words and knowing your audience and all that.
And here’s an Ode to a Four Letter Word, by Kathryn Schultz….