Since this is a blog about writing and often reflects on how words are used, I could not resist this topic (especially since it is everywhere in the media just now). By now, many readers will be familiar the word heard round the world (i.e. Our president’s blunt descriptor of a couple individual countries and an entire continent during an immigration policy presentation). Some news outlets struggled with how to specify the term without breaking broadcasting rules or local ethics laws or mortally offending customers. NPR devoted a segment to the decision-making process for how they reported the word (at first without saying it). Reactions varied from outrage and condemnation to accusations of “excessive pearl-clutching.” More than one of the online comments on the various news stories wondered out loud “What is the big deal? Have people never heard this word before?”
The “big deal” in this situation is context. If you are an ordinary person standing in the grocery line with your six pack and smokes during your time off and you utter this word (perhaps to describe that other city from whence hails the rival sports team or maybe just the store itself), it has little consequence. If you deploy it in a meeting at your place of work to describe the office (particularly the bathroom), it might be okay, depending on who is present and the code of conduct in the workplace. However, for many workplaces, if you are using the referenced word to insult clients/patients/superiors/etc., you should be planning in the back of your head for how to fit your fan, photos, extra shoes, hoarded snacks, and pet rock into your car, because you aren’t coming back. The president’s utterance of the word at the given time and place more resembled usage in an office meeting than in the local supermarket. In my office, as a fellow cube-jockey, he would have been in the parking lot with a security gaurd at his elbow before he could finish the sentence.
To be fair to the president, he denies use of the specific word, though he concedes use of unspecified “tough language.” He also took the time to deny having said nasty things about one of the offended countries (though sparing no comment about the whole continent he dissed). His followers explain that he was frustrated by the quality of the proposal laid before him and expressed his concerns candidly in ordinary “kitchen table talk.” This defense weakens in light of the fact this was not a kitchen table or a locker room where he was speaking.
There is plenty written about the wider consequences of the time and place chosen for the utterance in question. I am more interested in the singular power of the word to bring the conversation to a halt. The user of a strong word signals by its introduction that all listening and consideration has come to an end and the recipients do indeed stop listening once it has been introduced. Thereafter, the post-mortem discussions will all be about the word and the user, not the substance of the meeting. The abrupt disintegration of the immigration conversation left pundits asking on the radio this afternoon,”But what does the president really want? That’s still unclear.” Given the president’s reported distaste for the content of the discussion, he was likely pleased with the general outcome. Residents of the disparaged continent (and former residents, such as myself and my spouse) did not take pleasure from incident and, consequently, relations with that part of the world were weakened. Those of the president’s party who chose to express their own displeasure noted that the wording was “unhelpful,” which is true if the goal is to get to a viable policy solution (since the word has shut the process down at this point).
Let us return to the grocery line. I stood in such a line at a local supermarket once with a pair of young men in front of me and several families with children in parallel lines and behind me. The two men were conversing about a mundane topic but decorating their pauses with variations of a particularly potent four-letter invective, using it as teens in my era used the word “like.” Out of boredom and lack of interesting magazines to peruse, I measured the general frequency of use, finding the word present at least twice in every sentence.
The observed conversation led me to ruminate about the question of what these folks do when they are in genuine need of a nice strong exclamation. What do they say when they drop hammers on their toes (zounds? shazbot? dang?)? What do they say when they find out their roommate barfed on the bathroom floor and left the mess for others to clean up (blimy? goodness? jeepers? )? What about when they really want to tell someone (like the roommate who barfed) off? Go fly a kite? Curse words lose their snap with overuse, like a rubber band. Once robbed of their utility, they cannot be deployed to shut anything down, only to provoke laughter. Curse words, as noted above, also cause people to stop listening. I don’t recall what the young men in front of me were discussing because one word in various forms blocked it all out.
In my own writing, I avoid use of cursing, not because I am averse to using such words myself but because of the way they are generously sprinkled in other writers’ works as if to impress. One may argue that in order to be authentic and have characters who talk like “real” people, you need curse words and lots of them. After all, weren’t the men in line in front of me talking freely and naturally in an unrehearsed manner? Yes, it is true that some people swear profusely. It’s also true that I rarely hear such words in my work place (except the cafeteria, where people from other companies gather and some like to let loose at lunch), even though I know there is at least one true artist of the vulgar present (having heard the worst in other venues). Natural dialogue in our normal workaday context does not use strong words as punctuation and we find it works a lot more smoothly that way. For that matter, curses are uncommon in my family life as well. All of us are keeping our powder dry for that one shining moment when only the right words will do. We all know (because we are still employed) that it’s not likely to be at the conference table.