From Romeo and Juliet to “Ass” and “Hole”

I filled in for a high school English teacher one day who had left the following instructions: “Have the students rewrite one of the two scenes from Romeo and Juliet – either the balcony scene or the fight scene – into contemporary English.”

“Okay,” I said to the class, “this can be lots of fun, let’s take a look. Open your books to the fight scene, please, and imagine it: you have these guys raging at each other, and they’ve been doing it for years; they’re going to fight now, and they’re going to fight so hard a couple of them end up stabbed to death. Now instead of shouting ‘A plague o’ both your houses!’, Mercutio would say, if it were today, he’d say maybe ‘Fuck you!’, right? Okay, go ahead, see if you can translate the whole scene.”

The students did indeed have lots of fun. And the principal had hysterics. Why did you take it upon yourself to introduce vulgarities into a lesson, he asked. I didn’t ‘introduce’ anything, I responded, we were translating Shakespeare. ‘Zounds, Shakespeare uses vulgarities all the time, I added, seeing the need for further explanation. No matter, he asked me to promise never again to swear in class. But I didn’t swear in class; I quoted a character who swore. He smiled at me as if I were being silly. It’s what men do when they don’t understand what a woman has said. An hour later, exhausted by the attempt, I agreed never again to quote a character who swears. I then asked the principal to provide me with a list of words he considered swear words. He smiled at me again. Look, I persisted, I’m promising to abide by your rules – but I’ll need to know what they are, specifically.

Because it seems to me that what is and is not a swear word is rather arbitrary. True, most of our ‘bad words’ refer to religious characters (‘Christ!’ ‘God damn it!’) or bodily parts and functions (‘Shit!’ ‘Fuck!’). But if we had any shred of consistency about us, yelling ‘Angels!’, ‘Mucous!’, and ‘Birthing!’ would be just as bad.

Trying to find some semblance of logic, I once thought that our swear words are those words which refer to things we fear – hence the horror when they’re invoked in anger. That may explain ‘Jesus Christ!’ (at least, for Christians) but, well, I don’t know about you – I don’t live in fear of shit.

Then I thought perhaps swear words are things we want to keep special, sacred, and the offence is in the mention, the making common. Again, this works for the religious terms and maybe even the sexual terms, but defecation is not exactly a holy ritual.
To say they’re things we want to keep private, hence the offence at proclamation loud and clear, also doesn’t work. That taking prayer out of public schools was a battle suggests that religious words are not to be spoken only in private. Conversely, haemorrhoids, at least until Preparation H came along, have been a matter of some privacy, but that word never made it to the bad word list. And to say that swear words are our society’s unmentionables simply begs the question. Besides, yeast infections are pretty unmentionable too, but they don’t have swear status.

So I gave up. There is simply no rational explanation for what makes a word a swear word. Swearing, amazingly high on the social shalt not list, is defined at worst by whimsy, at best by custom. (And I doubt that I followed the same customs as the principal; certainly our sense of whimsy was different.)

Even more irrational is that context seems to be irrelevant. Swearing in anger, pain, or frustration, at no one in particular, seems to be as reprehensible as swearing at a specific person. I should think that the ‘Fuck!’ I yell when alone (say, whenever I hit my thumb with a hammer) is trivial compared to the ‘Fuck you!’ I yell at my neighbour (say, whenever he looks at me). But they’re both swearing; they’re both bad.

And yet, context is relevant: words are not intrinsically good or bad – it’s how we use them that makes them so. Consider ‘ass’. ‘The ass is a noble creature.’ In that case, the word’s okay. But if I say ‘You’re such an ass!’ then the word is offensive, and, if you like, a ‘bad’ word, a ‘swear’ word. Context creates meaning, and meaning is what matters.

Sometimes. Not only is the concept of swearing irrational, it’s terribly inconsistent. Consider the word ‘girls’. ‘The girls are here.’ That’s okay. But if the coach is reaming out his losing senior boys’ basketball team at half-time in the locker room and he says with disgust and derision, ‘Now girls, you’ve got to play with your eyes open!’ then doesn’t the word ‘girls’ become a swear word? Isn’t it offensive? Of course it is. To girls everywhere. (As well as, unfortunately, to the boys – except the ones who value girls and consider it an honour to be called one.)

At the end of the day, I saw the principal’s secretary flipping through a dictionary with some frustration. Poor man probably thought if it’s in the dictionary, it’s okay. And then realized that the words ‘god,’ ‘damn’ and ‘it’ are in the dictionary. As are ‘ass’ and ‘hole’.

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