I remember a time when fictionalstars didn’t use swear words. Ah, the innocent days of yore.
But seriously, it’s weird to think that once you thought “stupid” was a bad word. Over time, we become desensitized to swearing. Yes, those words can be powerful, but when we use them on a daily basis, they just become part of our vocabulary.
So what do they mean, anyway? As defined, they are expletives—syntactic fillers. Curse words do have meanings of their own, but we rarely use them in the context of their original definitions. These are words that have lost their meaning. We’ve made them meaningless by misuse.
That doesn’t mean they lack significance. Swearing indicates violence of emotions and ineffable feelings. In short, swear words express what language can’t. How ironic.
When you swear, people pick up instantly on your state of mind. It’s as effective as changing your tone of voice—employing expletives allows you to shift your meaning from humorous to angry to serious. In this sense, what the words mean in the dictionary doesn’t matter. What does matter is your context. It’s not descriptive language, or language that operates through meaning. It becomes something akin to a gesture, a facial expression, an action.
Linguistically, swear words are not functional. We could have a fully efficient language system without swearing. And yet, all languages do have curse words.
Maybe curse words give us some insight into the nature of language itself. The persistence of meaningless words, well, means something. If we continue to use, and to use profusely, words that have lost their function as vessels of linguistic meaning, doesn’t that tell us something about the ineffectiveness of our language systems?
The fact that we have words to express what language cannot—what a paradox—means we must have something lacking from our language. When we can’t describe a situation or how we feel about it, when the emotions become so violent that language is simply inappropriate, there are curse words.
And yet, there is another plausible reason for our use of expletives. It’s possible that language isn’t incapable of describing—but we are. Or, rather, we lack the motivation to bring words together to capture our feelings and our situations. It’s not the language that has failed to function. It’s us.
This second theory is tempting to believe. Human beings are as notorious for berating ourselves as glorifying ourselves, and calling ourselves too lazy to actually use words is only consistent with the self-deprecating criticism of humanity so prevalent today. In my eyes, it’s a completely valid theory. But so is the other one.
The implications of the first cut straight to the heart of the system. The first theory says our language is not fully equipped to address the realities of life, with its complex events, relationships, and emotions. And that’s perfectly understandable, because language is a human invention. Our most prized invention, yes, but still born from human thought and therefore subject to our limits and errors. Our language only goes as far as we can. So when we have trouble understanding our world, what hope can language have in describing it?
It’s also true that many people don’t try very hard to voice their thoughts in appropriate words. It’s so easy to use a swear word, and let that expletive explain your feelings for you. In today’s context of fleeting connections and quick messages, using accurate and appropriate language is sometimes just too much to ask for. Combine this human tendency with human limitations, and we’re left with both an ineffective language and a population unwilling to communicate effectively.
But is it really ineffective to swear? It’s quick, simple, takes no thought at all—in today’s world, at least, it’s fucking efficient.