Soap is good for many things; washing out your mouth is not one of them.
When I was younger, my parents never took the expression to its literal meaning---I strongly sympathize with those whose did--- but they did meticulously monitor my word choice, English and Russian. I was constantly warned to never curse in the house and was quickly reprimanded if I did.
I don’t think I’m alone in wondering why some vocal vibrations are considered more inappropriate than others. Why are some words so special that they are labeled something as evil-sounding as a “curse,” and why should we avoid them? What makes us refrain from speaking them at a job interview and twitch when we hear our 8 year-old sister pronounce them?
In the movie Monster, the protagonist, Aileen, is a highway-hooker-turned-murderer that steals her dead client’s cars and money to sustain her and her girlfriend (great film, go watch it). The movie shifts between the main dialogue and flashbacks narrated by Aileen. During these flashbacks, she speaks in a brooding and nostalgic cadence, which differs strongly from her general gruff and mumbling tone, punctuated by many “cr*ps,” “bullsh*ts,” and “f*ckings.” I noted during the movie that I sympathized a lot more with the narrator of the flashbacks than the main character, even though they were the same person, simply because she cursed less. Subconsciously, I was sobbing for the narrator Aileen but pursing my lips at the protagonist Aileen. It seemed that word choice alone separated the ratty, despicable prostitute from the confused, tormented woman inside.
The main reason my parents gave me for abstaining from cursing was that it makes people sound trashy and uncultured. But why? Two reasons:
One: curse words may genuinely offend some people.
Disregarding the etymology of the swear words (f-word, s-word if you’re interested), I believe that these words have simply been agreed upon over the years to hold their present significance. Because of this, generation upon generation of mothers have nailed a bad association with these words into their offsprings’ minds, and these words can truly make some people uncomfortable. Yet, I also believe that we don’t offend people directly by cursing as much as make an image for ourselves. Those who witness our cursing and are not personally affected may make the assertion that we are willing to make others uncomfortable. We may henceforth be labeled “inconsiderate” after uttering our choice words. But this, in fact, is the main reason why kids are so quick to pick up cursing. They feel the effect these words can bring, and what does a teenager love more than making his parents cringe? This is also why theres a national catastrophe each time the president calls a NY Times reporter an a-hole *cough* Bush *cough*.
Two: their use implies a lack of vocabulary.
I like to separate curse words into two categories: fillers and descriptors. Fillers are curse words that can take the place of an object or idea, such as ‘cr*p’, while descriptors can take all grammatical forms, such as the ‘f –word’. Fillers are generally used in place of other, higher-level words and imply a low level of literacy, but at the same time, they, unlike other nouns, can directly convey tone.
Ex: “Could you move your cr*p?” as opposed to “Could you move your backpack?”
Your friend clearly doesn’t feel too happy about your backpack lying in the middle of the room.
I also believe that we feel a tingle at the sound of a descriptor because it implies an intense feeling for the idea expressed in the rest of the sentence, be it positive or negative. When a person swears, they’re less worried about wording or imagery than the emotion behind their thought.
Ex: “Go away!” as opposed to “F*ck off!”
In other words, vacate the area, A.S.A.P.
Personally, I don’t consider it a huge offense for people to occasionally drop the f-bomb to emphasize their point in the right company, but constant overuse isn’t beneficial either. It doesn’t say much about your intellect if you can’t express yourself in any other way.
In the end, we create our own balance of vocabulary to suite our personality and the tolerance of those we surround ourselves with. As we age, we decide for ourselves when and where we consider it ok to curse. While playing Spades with friends, yes. While having tea with grandma, no. We should limit our cursing to an audience that understands our need to speak our mind without having to strain our brain for the perfect adjective.