One of the most satisfying and interesting pieces of literature I have ever read is a twofold manifesto concerning an important part of the Mexican language: its curse words.
Octavio Paz, the Nobel Prize recipient for Literature in 1990, wrote a 30-page essay about the verb chingar — I guess the closest thing in English would be the verb “to fuck” — which happens to be one of the most insightful pieces of Mexican philosophy and psychology I know.
I read it together with Carlos Fuentes’ chapter on the same topic in La muerte de Artemio Cruz (The Death of Artemio Cruz), for a high school class. Both of these literary pieces started what I would possibly call my language reformation.
This reformation consisted of de-demonizing curse words altogether. When I was in middle school, I honestly believed using curse words meant you were ignorant; that you had no other way of expressing yourself, so you just cursed. Which is, up to a certain point, true: saying “fuck” is a lot easier than saying the myriad of things it can mean (from “This is unfortunate, I missed the train” to “Gee, man, you really have terrible luck, I’m happy not to be living your sorry-ass life” to “A piano has just dropped on top of me”). However, saying “fuck” (or your word of choice) also denotes an emotion that the substitutable string of words can’t portray; explaining your anger or frustration in a non-curse just doesn’t cut it. We need special words to do that! How can we live without them?
I read an article in The Sun last week about curse words being used too often, about curse words being inappropriate in journalistic writing. Yes, of course they’re inappropriate if used incorrectly (and, really, sometimes people just don’t know how to swear. It is an art!). And of course using them to be “cool” is both stupid and pathetic, as is doing anything just to be cool. But, when used appropriately, curse words are not only important, but essential.
Knowing the curse words of a language can be incredibly telling of the language’s inner philosophy, more so than the “bigger” words used in academic or formal writing, which all come from Latin anyway. And they can let a writer / columnist / journalist convey emotions those “bigger” words will not convey for him or her. And, as a reader, knowledge of different swear words and their regional relevance lets you know where fiction takes place long before a place is mentioned.
For example: Spanish, with over a dozen countries having it as its native tongue, has a bank of swear words as diverse as the countries themselves. Swearing in Spain was a joke for me compared to the more aggressive, phonetically crude swear words I was used to in Mexico. And the way I look at life — relatively crude, maybe — can somehow be traced back to the swear words I know and use. Gillipollas (stupid/idiot/asshole) in Spain sounded too funny to use. If I did, it was to laugh at it. But Argentina’s tarado entrenado (trained stupid/idiot/asshole) has a beautiful, snobbish-madly-sarcastic ring to it that is almost irresistible.
During a party at the beginning of the semester, I had a blast with an Israeli girl explaining the curse words around the region and what they meant (if I understood it correctly, my favorite was the Arabic koos rabbak, which meant something like “go put a finger up your ass and twirl it around”). In French, I hold encule une mouche dear: it means “go fuck a fly”; a Catalan swear word consists of calling people condoms (I lack the accents to make that work, though); Serbs use bog te jebo for “may God fuck you,” and German swear words can be as long as the rest of the words in their language — the longest I found was der abschaum der menschlichen gesellschaft (“the scum of the earth”).
In English, the monosyllabic nature of curse words makes me take them less seriously, almost using them as adjectives and mostly unaware that I might actually sound more aggressive than I mean to. However, I beg to defend myself in saying I’m not the only one.
Is it wrong to swear? I don’t think so. The reason we are cursing more, however, may be of interest. It’s not like people have more bad things happening to them than before — maybe we’re just less shy about expressing our frustrations. Also, curse words hardly ever carry the meaning they started out with (does anyone take “fuck you” literally at all these days?) and start to become a non-aggressive slang of sorts. Maybe it’s worth looking at swear words a little more, demonizing them a little less, and using them to understand each other.
There’s an important difference between “fucking a fly” and being “fucked by God.” And our understanding of these differences can make us understand the different ways people are and think, making our cultural differences not only known, but understood. Which can only be good for everyone. Right?
Florencia Ulloa is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at email@example.com. Innocent Bystander appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.