Wednesday, September 3, 2014

What The F...?!

Let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No' be 'No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one. ~ Jesus, in Matthew 5:37
I heard my Dad swear (curse) just once. It was the classic hitting-his-thumb-with-a-hammer, “Dammit!” I was about ten years old. The fact that the oath came readily to him, and that he was a WWII vet, causes me, upon reflection, to realize that this was probably not the only incidence of swearing in his life. But it’s the only time I heard him. And I don’t mean that, instead, I heard him come close and veer off with a “Dam… er, darn it.” He just didn’t swear. That one isolated memory only solidifies this bedrock truth of my childhood.

Although I exhibited my share of youthful commandment-based piety, I am convinced that the main reason that I am not a swearing guy is the influence of my Dad. A second important influence, at the impressionable age of about 15, was my confirmation pastor, Howard Bomhoff (another vet, wounded in Italy), who taught us, “Swearing just shows what a poor vocabulary you have.” I think he said it once, and it stuck. I later entered professions (first a college English major, then teaching, then a call to ministry) in which words are of prime importance. Like my Dad with the hammer, I’d better use the salty ones sparingly, and for good effect, if at all.

I like to shock my confirmation students by telling them that although there are good reasons to avoid using “shit” and “fuck” (see “vocabulary,” above), the worst possible swear word, according to the Bible, is the one we hear used most frequently: “Oh, my God!” –  based on the fact that God enjoys having his name mocked about as much as you or I do. One day, when I was in college, a friend took me aside and said, “You know, Dick, you’re saying ‘Oh, my God’ a lot lately.” This seems like a surreal memory in the recalling of it, but I know it happened (although I can’t remember who my pious friend was). I have, essentially, never used the phrase since.

My glib use of it above notwithstanding, I have always been offended by the “F” word (this is not my piety kicking in; I’m actually offended by the word, and will use “F” for most of the remainder of this essay). At the risk of sounding a bit righteous, I’m offended on behalf of our mothers, our sisters, and our daughters. My understanding is that “F” is a word of sexual violence. The reason that “rape” is not a swear word is that we have “F.” It is not a clever reference to intercourse, but a verbal expression of forced sex.

In an ironic round-about, recent generations are using the F-word more frequently because it is depicted more frequently in popular culture which is supposedly reflecting the reality of kids these days. I think kids are using it more – it’s so easy to fall into that F-in’ rhythm (especially if it fills a vocabulary-deprived void) – but they don’t know what it means. They don’t intend to be insulting their mommas.

In the service of art and truth, the F-word does indeed have a place on the stage or on the page. But the irony is often missed by those who hear it as a primer for the hippest language. Television’s “The Pacific” was a gripping, harrowing series with F-peppered dialogue that apparently added to the veracity of its combat milieu. I don’t doubt the artistic truthfulness implied, but my Pacific-stationed uncle never used the word, and my Army Air Corps Dad could only muster one weak “dammit” in all the years I knew the guy.

Timothy Oliphant as Sheriff Seth Bullock in HBO's
"Deadwood." A comparatively straight-talker in an
atmosphere ubiquitous with the F word.
HBO’s “Deadwood,” I have to say, is Shakespeare with the “F” word. Caryl and I love the series. (Even though, as our daughters would say, "Mom would have to spell that word," Caryl is the one who commented on the Shakespearean feel of the dialogue.) The artful intent of the gritty speech works in a dramatically authentic way, but we are glad to leave the word behind in the muddy streets. It hasn’t rubbed off. (Caryl has not used the F-bomb against me even once; she hasn't even spelled it at me!)

My college English prof taught us that the Bard himself has Hamlet speak to Ophelia of “cunt-ry matters” (nudge, nudge; wink, wink) – word-based sexual taunting that didn’t work out well for dear Ophelia. I am not suggesting that the poet’s palette ought to be devoid of such ideas -- or words that offend.

But words can, indeed, wound or heal, tear down or build up. From the first books we read to our children to the vocabulary they hear us utter in all kinds of circumstances, we are introducing them to the power and magic of words. And it just may be an act of life-changing kindness if we approach a young friend and say, “You know, you’ve been saying ‘fuck’ a lot lately.”

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