I was recently watching an old HBO special of comedian Lewis Black. Like many comedians, starting perhaps most famously with Lenny Bruce, Black believes that a proper grammatical sentence consists of a noun, a verb, and an expletive, with the first two parts of speech being optional.
Black was discussing how he had been invited to be the entertainment at a White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, to be attended by then-President George W. Bush, and he had been told that profanity, aka “bad language,” was forbidden. Black complied at the event, but in speaking to his HBO show audience, he decried the idea that there is such a thing as “bad” language.
He asked the audience: If you’ve lost your job, and your company has stolen the pension fund money, for example, and you’re home contemplating your situation, what do you say to yourself? “Pussy feathers?” Clearly, that won’t do to relieve the pressure in your head, he says.
It’s all for laughs, of course, but as they say, many a true word is spoken in jest. Indeed, in the movie The King’s Speech, we see that uttering expletives sotto voce helps England’s King George VI overcome a stutter. I’m sure that someday a neuroscientist will discover why or how cursing relieves stress; whatever the cause, the result is clear: in layman’s terms, it’s like turning the steam valve on a pressure cooker. It keeps us from exploding...or tossing the company computer out the window.
But like antibiotics, these words should be used only when really needed if they are to continue to have the intended effect. What’s more, to mix metaphors, given their coarseness, sprinkling them too liberally in conversation, like too much salt in a dish, can ruin the overall flavor of discourse. There’s something to be said for the subtle tones of civility, sadly lacking in many personal, business, and political discussions these days.
So while I totally agree with Black that there’s a place for profanity—many places, even—those places must be judiciously chosen. And while “pussy feathers” may not fully express the angst or do anything to alleviate the anguish of a desperate situation, there are times when it’s not about relieving pressure, but rather about conveying disdain. For those occasions, the language is rich with nonprofane alternatives, or it used to be, as any reading of old books or newspapers can reveal.
Personally, I lament the passing of some great epithets from the English language. Maybe you’d like to help revive them. How about the next time you are listening to a windbag, consider calling him or her a blatherskite, or when you hear a politician’s tortuous misrepresentation of economic causes and effects, call it flapdoodle or balderdash, rather than B.S. If you are debating contentious issues, a few lighthearted pejoratives in place of profanity might cause your interlocutors to lower their defenses, giving you a psychological advantage and a chance to actually make a substantive point.
Then again, maybe my suggestions are complete poppycock.