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Curses, Foiled Again! February 6, 2006

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Education, Humor, Language, Morality, Stupidity.
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Not long ago, a good friend of mine was ranting about some software not working correctly, and it reminded me of a line from “A Christmas Story”:

“My father wove a tapestry of profanity which to this day is still hovering somewhere over Lake Michigan.”

This, in turn, reminded me of a quote by Mark Twain:

“Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.”

As a Christian, I’m acutely aware of my language, whether it’s around the house or out in public. Sometimes though, my tendency towards being a profanity-Nazi makes me stop and consider the definition of profanity, and my biases against it.

Surrounded by Lackeys?
Over the years, I have taught my sons the following maxim about profanity: Profane or vulgar speech is a sign of ignorance (a lack of education), simple-mindedness (more specifically, a lack of verbal creativity), or arrogance (a lack of consideration for others). I taught them to hear the words, and then assess which of the three “lacks” were present.

For example, a football coach my pepper his words to players with salty speech, and may even take pride in doing so. Some feel it’s necessary to use such language to communicate the intensity of the game, or to place the game in a more “adult” context. The thinking goes along the lines of, “If I curse liberally in practice, they’ll feel that I, being an adult, am treating them as adults, and they’ll raise the level of their game accordingly to adult expectations.”

In fact, I’ve never heard a football coach put it that way, and few may have even put that much thought into their behavior, the game being one that attracts a certain percentage of non-intellectuals. (As Joe Theisman once said, “Nobody in the game of football should be called a genius. A genius is somebody like Norman Einstein.“*)

On the other hand, football has been accurately described by Tom Flores as “The Violent Chess Match,” and anyone who has tried to demonstrate football success without the benefit recruiting understands this complexity. If this were to apply, and in fact some (or many) coaches are of above average intelligence, the “lack of intelligence” attribute wouldn’t apply. Could they be lacking in verbal skills, or simply inconsiderate of others?

Seven Words vs Seven Deadly Sins… Coincidence?
One of George Carlin’s more famous comedy routines of the 70’s was centered around the notion that there were seven words you could not say on television. In my limited travels to other cultures, I’ve seen similar “branding” of certain words or phrases, but they’re never the same words. Sometimes, even a literal translation of a meaning of a word deemed profane in one culture does not become profane in another.

A friend of mine who majored in anthropology reminded me of this when he heard me complaining about some “rough language” at work. “Tim, it’s just words. The only meaning they have is the meaning that we lay on top of them.

Meanwhile, Back at the Church
When he said this, I thought of a sermon my father had preached when I was very young. Dad began the sermon with a story about a puppy that had been born to the family next door.

Then he said, “that little son of a bitch is the cutest thing you have ever seen.”

Stunned silence greeted him, along with (no doubt) gasps of heresy. Such language! And from the pulpit! Surely fire was going to rain down from heaven and bring destruction upon the entire congregation!

Dad noted the reaction and then said, “Well, the puppy is a boy, and his mother is a female dog, and it’s proper to call her a ‘bitch.’ The puppy is, technically speaking, a ‘son of a bitch,’ whether you like the term or not.”

Thus began one of Dad’s more memorable sermons about language, and the notion of Christians setting themselves apart from the world by their behavior and their speech. So here is my very own father, pointing out that the profanity of certain words is not found in them intrinsically, but derives from the meaning that we place upon them. Could it be that in my fervor to “clean up” the language around my house, I’d thrown the baby out with the bathwater?

Intimate Profanity
Lastly, why is it that adults who are otherwise extraordinarily circumspect in their speech are willing to “cut loose” in personal, intimate settings? Books and movies are filled with tales of intimacy that seems to bring vocabulary out of a schoolmarm that’s on par with that of a longshoreman. However, I’ve seen a variation of this behavior in my own parents, who I never would suspect of language inappropriate for Sunday School. On our way to the hospital one night (Easter Sunday eve), my mom commented that “Life is a bitch.” When I exhibited shock and surprise at these words on the eve of Easter, Mom followed up with, “God knows life is a bitch. I’m not saying anything He doesn’t already know.”

While I won’t address the bedroom verbiage aspect, I can certainly see an element of reason in using profanity only around those closest to you. After all, around those closest to me, I should be more of who I truly am. I should peel away the veneer that I apply for the rest of the world, and allow my friends to see me for what I truly am.

This begs the question, “if my language is truly an indication of what is bouncing through my cranium, and my assetion is correct that equates vulgarity with a room temperature IQ, am I suddenly less intelligent when I’m around people close to me?” Hardly. It seems more plausible that I’m not as concerned with my language coloring the opinions of others about me, but I’m much less concerned with the opinions of strangers. When I consider that, then the next question is this: Am I being emotionally dishonest if I don’t speak what’s in my heart?

Which brings me back to the football coach. Is it possible, that instead of being the earmark of abuse, that the coach’s colorful speech is an artifact of a close relationship with the players?

Is it possible that the coach really is intelligent, and is applying a complex motivational technique, honed over years of observation and experimentation? Is it possible that he can rattle off Shakespear** at a moment’s notice if he chooses, but intentionally opts for Andrew Dice Clay?

Maybe. More likely, he just doesn’t give a damn.***

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

* As it turns out, Norman Einstein was the name of the valedictorian in Theisman’s HS class, but since Theisman apparently isn’t a Norman Einstein, he didn’t explain that part.

** I’m well aware that Shakespear’s works contained what many of his day considered vulgar and profane terms and phrases. The inclusion here was not a coincidence.

*** Readers should consider that to be a sign of my enduring love for all those who take the time to read to the end of a long, rambling blog entry like this one.

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