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Woops, did that slip out?

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by

Samira Kadam

on 22 April 2010

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Transcript of Woops, did that slip out?

Swearwords! Aren't they just squiggles, that form characters, that form words? Big FUCKING DEAL. We laugh (or we don't laugh, if we're a tough crowd), but it turns out they, swearwords, are a big effing deal - not a value judgment, but an observation that they are the linguistic elephants in the room - not wholly spurned or undesirable, but not always persona grata at every confab. If they didn't possess these traits, maybe I wouldn't have had the comic (but still self-protecting and audience-respecting) impulse to put up the Parental Advisory logo, or to have just revised the participal adjectival "fucking" to "effing" some words before.

Swearwords, however narrowly or broadly defined, are known when seen, heard, or otherwise sensed, generally given a wide berth to, and many times adversely reacted to. Mr. Vice President Joe Biden must know just what I mean... In case you were able to dodge the Biden-ribbing - Jimmy Fallon's revisionary recreation of the Schoolhouse Rock ditty "I'm just a bill, yes I'm only a bill" to read "I'm just a bill, just a big fucking bill," is one example - or the negative criticism of Biden by those offended, or shocked, or appalled, or insulted to a degree that Biden's f-bomb became a news story, this was a clip from the March 23, 2010 signing of the health care bill, which is, as I write in the paper, an event many would presumably consider, with diction similar or dissimilar, a pretty big fucking deal. Then we have this moment-memorializer in the form of heather-grey t-shirt. Does the Democratic National Committee have a sense of humor, or what? Aw, god bless those self-deprecators... Yet, if you'll notice, we have not "big fucking deal" spelled out, but an acronymization of it - "BFD" - which has plenty of buzzword potential.

But, think about this: if the DNC was comfortable, and even jocular, about the BFD incident, why would "fucking" be deleted from the final transcript of the Health Care Decision Address? If there is a "ha-ha"-ness to the general camp of Obama/Biden staff with regard to the incident, it's of a "our slip is showing" nature. A quote from the paper:
As much self-deprecating humor as the DNC has demonstrated with the release of the t-shirt and the ostensible acceptance of Biden’s malediction, is not beneath the patina of good humor the centuries-old impulse of language purification?

Could not the t-shirt be motivated by a wish for vindication through self (committee)-immolation? Answers to such questions are, certainly, beyond the scope of this research paper, yet relevant and fascinating topics for further study nonetheless. Seriously, though... Okay, maybe it's not so bad. Or, it is...

How about I let you decide. DISCRETION ADVISED... A Fox News/Dynamic Poll survey gauged peoples' sensibilities and sensitivities, to find 57% of respondents unfazed by Biden's "fucking" (his utterance of the word, to be sure) and 37% fazed by "fucking," a a word unlisted in dictionaries from 1728 until 1965. Sincere apologies if my bias is apparent. Others weighed in, too. The editors of 'The New York Times' posed the question, in response to Biden's "colorful language" as CBS News put it, "Why Do Educated People Use Bad Words?" The note to the readers encapsulated their attitude more deftly -

"Note from The Editors: Reader comments that include obscene words including those that are not completely spelled out will not be approved.” Apparently, these jokers haven't taken English 308 because if they did, they'd know language legislation don't work so good.

Ironically, one of the discussion contributors for this blog entry says just that. Let's look at some snippets. John McWhorter, the author of 'Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English':

"In our society, the main taboo is no longer sex, but race." Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University:

"For those who use them, swear words are linked to emotion in a visceral way." Tony McEnery, professor of English language and linguistics at Lancaster University in Britain:

"Historical campaigns that linked bad language with moral degeneracy endure in the English language to this day." Timothy Jay, professor of Psychology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts:

"Attitudes about profanity have swung like a pendulum. Maybe we’re paying for the ’60s now?" Lee Siegel, columnist for the 'Daily Beast':

"Uttering a taboo word in public is a great hierarchy-buster." Here are just "snippet views," as Google Books would call them, of the argumentative thrusts of these contributors, and those that they share - that the BFD was a non-BFD (except for Siegel, who posits that the angry speech of politicians bespeaks the anger of politics itself - demonstrates several major semantic trends illuminated by language study: that language and class, propriety, sophistication, among other considerations, are mutually informant, something very powerfully demonstrated in the study of swearwords.

A dislike of vowels equates with a dislike of values. Another trend: the dilution of impact over time of taboo words that, with repetition, lose their shock ability. The word "fuck" “was for many decades regarded as grounds for obscenity or pornography, an assumption not properly challenged in the courts until 1959 in the United States and 1960 in Britain.”

So, Biden and Dick Cheney, who has an f-word fetish, would have gotten it bad, and that ain't good. In case you forgot about Cheney's favorite word, here's a memory refresher:
Then, there's context. Had Biden said to Obama “you’re a big fucking (noun),” reception, depending on the connotative power of the chosen noun, would have varied greatly from that of “this is a big fucking deal.” Why are BFD-s BFD-s at all? Good effing question. Why the 37% faction exists despite a serious swearword researcher (among very few others) like Timothy Jay telling us "cursing is normal." To answer these questions, I turned to historical explanations and more current psycholinguistic findings. Historically, as we've learned in this course, thou-shalt-not acts of “changing or suppressing speech or writing that is considered subversive of the common good” have a long history. Jay notes that “censorship has always co-existed with freedom of speech” and that “history shows that we tend to cycle through liberal and then conservative periods of speech censorship.” With the popularity of individual rights, censorship, bowdlerization, and other such acts became objectionable. Psycholinguistically, our squeamishness results, according to Christopher Fairman, from word taboo a result of “our deep, subconscious, negative feelings about sex” that “compels many to engage in self-censoring” – a Freud-inflected explanation. These may seem like obvious observations, but the statistics born of Jay's research bespeak the ubiquity and frequency of swearing. We learn from Jay that:

- swearing is a natural part of human speech development
- we learn to distinguish the taboo words from the non-taboo words in childhood
- virtually all people swear – from 0.3% to 0.7% of the time – a small, but significant percentage of overall speech (frequently-used personal pronouns occur at approximately 1.0% rate in speech)
What we can conclude: swearword expression knows no class boundaries. So, what's the big fucking deal if Biden said big fucking deal? You think I'm opinionated? Watch this:
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