Wednesday, June 18, 2008

On Four-Letter Words

A comment by D on another posting raised a topic deserving of its own topic: frumkeit and four-letter words. Let's dispell that popular myth that frum people 1) don't know any four-letter words and 2)never use those words.

My main teaching job is at a college under Jewish auspices, and I teach the males. I'm around before classes, during breaks and when classes let out. The only place to get a breath of fresh air is in front of the building and students congregate there regularly. I've heard every one of the four-letter words used that I've heard in the colleges where I've taught and teach that aren't under frum auspices, and have even heard a few I have never heard anywhere else. Frum Jews are not immune to using curse words.

But why does anyone use curse words? Let me share an exercise I did with a class at a well-known college under Catholic auspices. (The idea for the exercise was not mine but I thought it was brilliant and adapted it for my purposes.)

Well before class began, I put up standard sheets of paper on all the walls of the classroom with each sheet having a different curse word or phrase printed in large block letters. I added in also all those stereotype words that we use when referring to people from other countries, cultures or religions. I literally papered the room with these words. Then the students arrived.

To say they were in shock is a vast understatement. Not only in shock but with nowhere in the class to look to avoid being faced with the words. And then I began class.

"What's the problem?" I asked. "Don't like my redecorating?"

"It's not what you expect in school and from a teacher," one student volunteered.
"Yeah, they're not school words," another said.

So I asked where the words did belong. A few, a very few students argued that the words don't belong anywhere. I asked these students if they had EVER used the words. Embarrassed silence. One student said that she never curses. I asked if she had ever said "What the f___" or "What the h___", leaving the words unverbalized. She admitted she had. "What," I asked her, "were your listeners going to fill in the blanks with?" She finallly nodded her head and admitted that she may not have verbalized the full curse word but she had used it nonetheless.

Then I asked what was wrong with the curse words on the walls. Answers poured in. They were vulgar. They were about body functions that aren't polite to mention in public. They were attempts to denigrate someone's place of origin or their religion. They were profane. I let the answers flow and then I continued.

"What course is this?" I asked. "English" was the answer. "Why do you suppose an English teacher would be interested in curse words?" came from me. Silence. So I continued.

"Using curse words is an 'English' problem. Using curse words shows a lack of vocabulary. Using curse words is a hallmark of ignorance. Curse words are place holders in our speech for when we are too lazy or too unknowledgeable to think of a more correct word, a better word to use. They're verbal shortcuts that add nothing of substance to conversation. They're emotional rather than rational or logical."

"People use curse words to show that they are "cool," or "hip," or "with it" or any other term that makes you a bonafied member of a group you want to belong to. People think that using curse words makes them "in." Wrong, wrong, wrong."

The students' first assignment was to bring in sheets of paper on which they had written substitutes for those curse words and phrases that would be acceptable in general conversation and that would have specific meanings.They were to use a dictionary and a thesaurus. They were to think of the specific instances where they would have used the curse words and the specific emotion or meaning that they were trying to convey, and then they were to actually convey that emotion or meaning in "proper" English.

The next class period we had enough sheets to paper the entire building. There were grumblings about the amount of work they had to do but they had learned the first important lesson: to speak and write in an educated manner you have to actually be educated, not ignorant. Education takes some effort on their part. Our English language is blessed with an abundance of words that let us say specifically what we want to say, words that are effective. It is so not necessary to resort to curse words.

And this brings me to the crux of the matter. Far too many people are speaking English, but only very rudimentary English. They are substituting slang for standard English. Their vocabulary is poor. Their skills in writing and speaking are not fully developed. They are not readers, or they read material written by those whose skills are also not of the highest. Some believe that the truncated English seen in text messaging or emails is the "new English" of the future. It matters not at all what the excuses or reasons are: the end result is that too many people speak English that is "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

And the next time that you hit your finger with a hammer just try saying "ouch." Perfectly intelligible, conveys a specific message and won't have me glaring over the top of my glasses at you.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant post! :: tips hat ::

G said...

Devil's Advocate:

They're emotional rather than rational or logical

And? That never has a place?

Anonymous said...

What do you do with the word hell then? It's not a curse word by itself, just a bad place that most religions talk about. And if someone says "go to hell" that may be the precise place they wish you would go to. Or what about when it gets used positively like in That's a helluva good job you did yesterday?

miriamp said...

I don't use profanity, and I try to avoid cursing as well (I make the distinction for d*mn and h*ll) -- and so far my kids don't know the words. We're trying! The worst thing my kids can think to call each other is "stupid idiot" and I don't really allow that either. Hadn't thought of giving them a thesaurus though, and encouraging more inventive and flowery insults. Might be fun, and distract them from actually insulting each other.

They're extremely well-read for their ages, though, and even if I do kind of oversee what they read, a lot of it is from the public library. So that's 8 kids who should know how to use proper English. Doesn't make a dent in society, but it's something.

I agree that there's no need for profanity. English is a pretty colorful language without it.

Anonymous said...

I think for a lot of people damn and hell aren't considered as real swear words. There are so many places where they are used in a positive sense. My boss always uses at meetings "that was a damn good job you did" or "that was a damn fine idea." It's the other curse words that bother me a lot more and you hear them everywhere. My 8 year old heard the f--- word on the bus coming home from yeshiva and then asked me if that was a word we allowed in the house. We don't but that other frum kid was happy to pass it along to everyone else.

Anonymous said...

Heck and darn came into being as substitutes for hell and damn. But since everyone knows what words you are using them in place of and the original flashes into a listener's mind along with the substitute, what have you gained by using the substitute?

I think though that referring to using swear words by frum people, it's way more the men then the women. But I'm guessing that that would be the case in secular society too. Cursing seems more of a male thing.

SaraK said...

I work in less formal industry than typical corporate America and my boss always tells us what a "F*%&-ing great job" we are doing - this is at meetings with the whole department!

ProfK said...

In reference to your comment Devil's Advocate:

They're emotional rather than rational or logical

And? That never has a place?

of course emotion has a place in conversation. But there are better, more expressive words available for when it's emotion you want to show. There's always "ouch" if something is paining you, or its alternative "youch." And then there is the expletive "oh applesauce" (I believe from the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie) which will get you far fewer glares then the usual choices. And if you still insist then you can always go with equine manure.

G said...

Uh, huh.

'Cause those words get the point across:)

ProfK said...

Why yes they do G, particularly if they are uttered with the same degree of loudness and intensity as oh s--t would be uttered at. And they have the advantage of lightening things up a bit, especially if those hearing you begin to crack up.