To cuss or not to cuss.

Recently my pal Jayson got into some trouble over on his blog for using a certain four-letter word that began with the letter F. So much erupted over his choice in diction, that it reminded me of a passage I once read:

On the Use of Dirty Words William F. Buckley, Jr.

I guess I was seven when I first heard the maxim that only people with small vocabulary use “dirty” words. I am 47 and I have just received a communication from a reader delivering that maxim as though he had invented it. The trouble with the cliche is that a) it isn’t true; b) it doesn’t take into account the need to use the resources of language; and c) the kind of people who use it are almost always engaged in irredentist ventures calculated to make “dirty,” words that no longer are, and even some that never were.

The first point is easily disposed of by asking ourselves the question, Did Shakespeare have a good vocabulary? Yes; and he also used, however sparingly, profane and obscene words.

The second point raises the question of whether a certain kind of emotion is readily communicable with the use of other than certain kinds of words. Let us assume the only thing it is safe to assume about the matter, namely that every emotion is experienced by everyone, from the darkest sinner to the most uplifted saint . . . Non-saints, it is my thesis, have a difficult time adopting the manners of saints, and even if they succeed most of the time in suppressing obnoxious words, they will probably not succeed all of the time . . .

I had a reason to reach, a while back, for a word to comment upon a line of argument I considered insufferably sanctimonious. “Crap,” I wrote: And the irredentist hoardes descended upon me in all of their fury. I have replied to them that the word in question is define in a current dictionary in several ways. That among these are meaning 2: “nonsense; drivel; Man, don’t hand me that crap. 3. a lie; an exaggeration; Bah, you don’t believe that crap, do you?” Notwithstanding that the word has these clearly non-scatological uses, there is an Anglo-Saxon earthiness to it which performs for the writer a function altogether different from such a retort as, say, “Flapdoodle.”

I’m a discreet cursor, myself — and have been known to occasionally pepper my language with a few choice words (sorry, Mom). In some instances, a shocking word is necessary to convey your message effectively. I’m not advocating cases of rampant potty-mouths, but I’m not willing to say that you should *never* use these types of words in your discourse.

Recently there was a talk on campus, given to an entire department, where the speaker used the words “pissed off” to describe his reaction to the untimely death of someone he loved. More people were upset at his word choice than at the subject matter he was addressing. That’s misdirected, in my opinion. Pissed off described his visceral reaction to the event — simply substituting “upset” or “angry” would not have been as effective, in this instance.

Are we that Puritanical, and do words hold that much meaning, to completely distract us from the subject at hand? Sometimes, I think people are.