For every spoken language, there are regional dialects, and for every regional dialect, there exists another subset of individual vocabulary that varies from person to person.
Though I can mangle my Spanish and mash my French, what I speak, and write, is English. But the English I speak and the English you speak may be two different languages entirely.
Linguists have a name for it: You speak an idiolect. An individualized subdialect of a language specific only to you.
Combine the circumstances of your and my economic upbringing, your and my educational level, your and my unspoken biases, and a thousand-thousand of your and my personal preferences, not to mention the delicious forms of your and my verbal shorthand developed over a lifetime of interior thought and exterior interaction and it may amaze both you, and me, that we manage to have a comprehensible conversation at all.
That’s after we factor in regionalisms and dialects and subdialects.
And after we realize that I speak an idiolect comprehensible only to me, and you speak an idiolect comprehensible only to you.
And that’s without factoring the everyday, but somehow still taboo, language of profanity.
Ah, yes. Profanity.
That’s yet another language that may divide you and me. And that divide can span miles. That divide may cut our conversation short. Done. Nil. Finis.
With that knowledge in hand, please excuse me for revealing the following shocker. I speak two Englishes. One of them is full of profanity. The other is full of fauxfanity.
You may have noticed that I do not use any stronger curse word than damn on my blog.
Though I don’t think it’s happened yet, I may at some point break out hell, either as an exclamation or a noun, but that’s really not one of my favorite words.
Hellion is great. Hell is kind of… meh, unless combined with other nouns. Try it. Put some weird noun in front of hell and suddenly it’s hilarious.
Occasionally, I will post a link to something that contains a curse word tucked in there somewhere, but you’ve most likely noticed that I place a lot of warnings around it.
In my real everyday life, I am apt to say a long string of nonsensical and coarse-woven expressions. I say them loudly; I say them softly. I say them standing on my head.
I say them in the kitchen, and I say them in the car with the windows closed. (But lately, I’ve been using more fauxfanity because that way, instead of getting stressed by bad drivers, I crack myself up.)
I use four of the basic curse words that have gone in and out of favor with the Federal Communication Commission (FCC).
To be more specific, these words I use at home are the kind you’ll hear on prime-time television, and in the case of one word, premium cable TV.
For a variation, I use some versions of the standard four that are typical to the British and Irish influences of my upbringing, but there are a couple of British/Irish curses I never heard regularly when young or don’t really like.
I’ve been known to break out a couple of the more vivid exclamations in Spanish and in French. (Can’t speak either language worth a bent nickel, but I can memorize all the curse words and profane idioms? Charming.)
The Texan in me knows how to divide single-syllable curse words into double- and treble-syllable curses. Texans really know how to unpack a curse word better than anyone I’ve met.
Although I was exposed to a panoply of influences from the Middle East in my first restaurant job, I never did manage to pick up any of the good ones in Farsi or Arabic.
I know two or three strong nouns in Russian, but they sound marble-y in my mouth, so they are more fun toys than workaday language.
However, there are more than a handful that I do not say, specifically most of the famed “Seven Dirty Words” used to big effect by Lenny Bruce* and later, George Carlin. I consider this a matter of personal preference.
You may see this as an example of an idiosyncrasy within my idiolect.
Now, the question that should be bugging you is where and to whom I use this resplendent language?
Well, that’s the interesting part, isn’t it? I use these words… when I’m alone.
Sometimes the dogs are present for my brief show of verbal fireworks, but as their English is limited, I’m not worried either of them will pick it up. (And Monkey doesn’t care what language you use, but she doesn’t like upset people. So, I try to avoid getting upset, in general, in front of the dogs.)
I will use all four of the profane words in everyday speech to The Husband. I shout them with joy to two of my friends if we’re talking over the phone, and that’s about it.
My profanity usage, in other words, almost qualifies as its own idiolect within an idiolect.
When I was designing the shape and style of Bluebird Blvd., I chose not to use most of my four beloved bad words (excluding damn, which is prominently displayed in the subhead of my blog.) (Someday I’ll work in hell as part of a longer, funny noun phrase.)
I had my reasons for making this choice up front, sociolinguistic cash on the barrel, and I thought long and hard about this before I even had a chance to meet you.
Though I use simple profanity at home, the kind of subject matter I most love to write about is pretty upbeat. Profanity and upbeat goodies can mix, but it is a rare pen that can pull off that loop-de-loop of high- and low-comedy. I didn’t want to cut myself out of meeting some great people just because I know some words that begin with “f” (like flibberjabber!).
My profanity isn’t nearly as imaginative or as comical as Chuck Wendig or Jenny Lawson or, my personal favorite profane writer, Cintra Wilson.
The funny in profanity lies in the juxtaposition of the scatological with the unexpected object.
Here’s a formula to explain how that works:
Y= funny ordinary object
Z= absolutely pitch perfect comic timing
X + Y (Z) = Hilarity
(Additional Note: Hyphenated scatological profanity is not nearly as funny as compound noun profanity.)
I don’t have the knack for the timing involved, and I hate scatological references, so that’s that. (For instance, only one of the “big seven” will show up in my vocabulary.)
That cuts an even thinner slice of an idiolect that I exclude from my language.
My background is in print journalism, fiction, and poetry. I’ve written for major publications, both newspapers and magazines, and in that world you don’t use profanity. (The wider the circulation, the lower the curse word count.)
Out of courtesy to you, my reader and friend, I try to give this blog the same polish as I would if I were writing for print. In fact, it’s even more important to me to make sure what I give you has the highest polish I can evoke because I am a one-Bluebird operation here.
That’s pretty much it. I don’t use profanity on Bluebird Blvd. because I want to meet all kinds of folks here on the Blvd.
I’m not particularly good at the surprising juxtapositions required to make profanity funny.
And I don’t want to deal with the baggage that goes along with the scatological humor, a type of funny I don’t do well at all and don’t like all that much.
Sometimes we choose our idiolect, and sometimes our idiolect chooses us.
But, if you were to tell me profanity is bad, I would have to disagree with you wholeheartedly.
Profanity is important because it is a distinct language reserved for an adult population and adult conversation.
It shocks and it pleases. There’s an immediacy that comes from certain language, and profanity contains all that immediacy in one short burst.
There are writers and comics that I love who use profanity in what I consider a profound way to dissect some element of humanity otherwise unexplored. To remove profanity from these artists would be removing one of the tools that make their art unique.
Few words have both the power and the weight than the four vulgar base terms and their natural offspring. I can think of ten songs right now that would leave me cold as a listener if the profanity in the lyrics were not included.
This is one of those cases where English would be impoverished without these words, and the poetry of rock music alone would pale.
Or, even more curiously, new profane words would slide in to take their place.
See, that’s the funny thing about language. Words have power. And words can shift. And words that were once used as an expression of power in order to subdue women, entire cultures, and sexual orientations have been reappropriated, shifted by the victims who once were bruised by them.
My friends, this is called code-switching. Taking back a word, one of the worst ones, and claiming it as your own, is a massive way to assert power. It shifts the word from weapon to possession, and whether you agree or disagree with the way this reappropriation is used, it works.
Whole movements have been born on the loft of taking back a terrible word. Code-switching is not necessarily a completely agreed-upon practice even by those who would seek to erase any boundary created by an oppressive class.
And that is why I protect and adore my four profane words. I claim them as a contemporary woman. It’s the way I place a stake on my own personal moon. It’s the way I differentiate myself from generations of women who weren’t even allowed to discuss their own body parts with one another without a level of self-censorship.
And this is why I’m discussing this touchy subject with you right now. I spend a lot of time, and thought, trying to bring you the brightest and the most beautiful thoughts and people and songs and ideas I can find.
The most important and brilliant idea I can lay at your feet today is that language is powerful. It is beautiful. It is immense.
And it is comprised of many, many Englishes— the ones we speak, the ones we write, the ones that remain the languages of your interior cosmos. Use your words well. I know you do. And if you use profanity— say it around adults. And say it like you mean it.
If you don’t go profane, or you’re trying to unlearn this potent language, I have one more expression to teach you today. It’s guaranteed to bring a shock and a laugh, so please, save it for the most public occasion you can find.
The next time someone catches you off guard by telling you something pleasant you are not expecting, please say the following:
Unsuspecting person: Did you know that Sue-Belle made the pie we’re having for dessert out of peaches from her own tree? Didja?
You: (Expression of delighted shock) Shut the… front door!
As I said, many Englishes. Do you see what I mean? Expressions like the one above are why I prefer to be bilingual in both profanity and fauxfanity. For some of you, a door is just a door. But for me, this particular door is a window into the language of the interior.
* Lenny Bruce is one of the most interesting comics of the 20th century. George Carlin owed Bruce a huge debt for pioneering a style of comedy that mid-century ears had not heard before (but 17th century ears heard plenty of this stuff). Lenny Bruce’s life and mind were destroyed by ongoing obscenity charges and drug problems. Bob Fosse made an amazing, if quite dark, biopic on Bruce. I highly recommend it if you’re a fan of comics who “work blue.”
** A CORRECTION: If you read this essay early this morning, you may have noticed that I originally said that I use the “Seven Dirty Words.”
Though I thought I did my fact-checking thoroughly, it turns out what I thought the “Seven Dirty Words” were, and what Bruce and Carlin and the FCC consider the “Seven Dirty Words” are different words.
It turns out I’m not that profane. The words I’m talking about here are the basic four: damn, hell, s***, and f***. Does that make more sense? Clarity helps. Please excuse the limitations of my idiolect.