Profanity is Useful

Profanity is useful. People need those words to express things that cannot otherwise be expressed. There are times when the artful use of non-profanity works better and there are times when you simply must have the quick punch of a “bad” word. And to have profanity, you need to maintain at least a loose taboo on certain words.

But this is ridiculous:

The parents of a 12-year- old Tioga Middle School student, who was exposed to a long list of explicit words by his teacher, say they want answers now.

The couple says they were in shock when their 7th grader came home from school in August and asked his parents to define a list of dirty words he was given from his teacher during a lesson on profanity.

. . .

“We really want to see people held accountable for what has been done, we want action to be taken finally,” said [Erin] Hawkins[, the boy’s mother].

In “shock”? What, because your kid was exposed to some “explicit words”? It’s especially ridiculous compared to what happened later at a school board meeting:

A concerned citizen named JP Sarkisian made up a colorful list of those naughty words the kids saw, and showed them to the school board.

Board President Tony Vang did not appreciate the lesson. “Mr. Sarkisian, this is not appropriate to show that list … it is not appropriate. I would appreciate if you to put it away.” Vang said.

Why are these people so upset about a list of “dirty words” used in a classroom? Do they have any idea how kids talk? And why, exactly, does Tony Vang think it is “not appropriate” to even “show” these words, decontextualized and listed, in front of adults who know that even “dirty words” have no more power than you give them? Why can’t these people discuss this issue like adults and why are they so paranoid and so intent on infantilizing their children that they even encourage them to discuss this issue like adults?

I have no sympathy and no patience for people who fear or attempt to block the use of “dirty words.” Applying taboos to make certain words “dirty” is useful, because it reinforces the “offensive” quality of those words, but then creates a list of words that form a particularly useful shorthand vocabulary when they need to increase intensity but a wordier expression would not work.

But when people want to discuss the words in an academic or clinical fashion, for instance to explain them to middle schoolers or talk about them in a school board meeting, they ought to recognize that the taboo is meaningless in that context. When you take a “dirty” word out of context and talk about the word, you’re not using the word, so there is no increased intensity. The people who still get upset, simply when confronted with a printed word, or the sound of the word, or the existence of the word, even when it’s not being used as profanity only demonstrate their ignorance of how language gets its power.

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