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Swearing Off Anger

Naveen Sunkavally

I picked up the September 1998 issue of Reader's Digest the other day. Most of the time Reader's Digest is rather fun to read, though you sometimes need to wear a blanket over your head to prevent its conservative standpoint from leaking through.

In September's issue, while browsing through the table of contents , I picked up on a column called "One Word We Can Do Without," with the subtitle "Refuse to say it. It's that simple." The column was taken from the U.S. News & World Report and written by Elizabeth Austin. For a moment, a collection of words, such as "paradigm" or "revolution", whose meanings have been warped and bent backwards to uselessness went through my head. The word referred to, in fact, turned out to be only the boring, old, innocent F word.

In a way, it wasn't too surprising that such a column would appear in Reader's Digest. Previous reading of Reader's Digest had shown me places of blatant censorship of questionable language. For instance, in the same issue, in the story, "Old-House Blues," Alex asks, "What in the name of raw sewage were they thinking?" And in another story, some editor replaced a popular bumper sticker phrase with "manure happens." I would like to know who in America expresses dialogue in this manner.

"One Word We Can Do Without" advocates the elimination of the F word from the English language. The author believes that using the F word contributes to social decay, according to the "broken window" theory. The "broken window" theory, first stated by criminologist James Q. Wilson, essentially argues that if one window in a house in a community is broken, then an atmosphere of general recklessness comes about in the community to cause the other windows to be broken as well.

The author also believes that the prevalence of the F word breeds anger and rage and has caused a weakening in the laws of public civility. To remedy the situation, the author recommends that all movies using the F word even once be given a NC-17 rating, that all authors using the F word liberally be given the same treatment as those authors who use racial epithets, and that the public actively object to and refuse to use the F word.

Why the author specifically chose the F word as a harbinger for social decay is not very clear. The author never really explains. There are dozens of other swear words that are just as prevalent as the F word. I imagine some swear words probably were alive for centuries in human civilization before dying off; new ones are probably taking root in elementary schools right now. Most people can probably name one for every letter of the alphabet, except perhaps Q and Z.

Also, I feel that, used appropriately and with moderation, the F word can positively express sentiments hard to express otherwise in cases of extreme displeasure. The F word, like all other swear words, is a hard word. It begins low and soft and ends tough, like the crack of the whip. It is ideal for high pressure situations, and it may very well be that today's stop-and-go, hustle-and-bustle society has made the F word popular.

Furthermore, I don't believe using the F word or any other swear word can necessitate an atmosphere of anger and rage. Rather, the F word may very well prevent anger and rage from turning deadly. Would you rather have sometime tell you, "F off," and go away, or would you rather have that person say politely, "I don't like you," and beat you senseless? Swear words are valuable in that they funnel away excess energy. The people who get most angry are probably those that get angry the least amount of times.

In addition, I don't agree with the author's prescriptions to cure the prevalence of the F word. When's the last time anyone has seen a movie rated R that has not used the F word or another questionable word? Rating every movie that uses the F word with an NC-17 would dilute the NC-17 rating until the point that normal movies would sit in the same company as porn flicks. Use of violent language and Disney is exactly the reason the rating G is still around.

The author's comparison between authors who use the F word and authors who use racial epithets is also misleading. The author also says that the F word can be eliminated from the language in just the same way that Jesse Jackson started an overnight "transformation" of our nomenclature from using "black" to using "African-American."

The F word, however, is not a racial epithet. While the F word is meant to express anger of all types, a racial epithet is meant to hurt and inflict pain to one group of people. At home, on my bookshelf, I have a very valuable, little, thin, white-covered book called "The Catcher in the Rye." Is J.D. Salinger now to receive the same treatment as the author of a Ku Klux Klan pamphlet?

Swear words are valuable words in society whose value is often overlooked. They provide a convenient alternative to outright violence. While I don't recommend the casual use of the F word, I do fully endorse using it intelligently. Modern society today is probably more stressed out than at any period in history, and eliminating one non-violent avenue to express discontent may be just the prescription for more chaos.