Certain words have vast emotive power. I am sure you can think of a few.
Spider (to some people, including me, at least).
These are words that have that power because of what they mean – the images they bring up in our minds. Other words have emotive power because they are viewed by society as obscene. I won’t list these here, but I bet you’re running a few through your mind right now, to try them out.
The question from which I cannot escape is: why are the words in this second group considered shocking? Why are they considered to be worse than their ‘clean’ alternatives? What is inherent in them that is not inherent in the word ‘table’?
And the only answer I can find is that the only power these words hold is the power which society grants them. There is nothing inherent in them. They are collections of letters. If everybody chose, all at the same time, to no longer hold them as offensive, then they would no longer be offensive. If everybody chose, all at the same time, that the word ‘apple’ was offensive, then the fruit industry would be in deep trouble.
Words have no more power than that which we grant them. Is it time to stop being offended?
Perhaps not. Studies are increasingly showing that there is a useful place in the human psyche for ‘bad’ words – whichever collection of letters they should happen to be. If you are not a person who habitually swears, then cursing can help alleviate pain. It may tap into a primitive part of the brain that helps us deal with stressful situations – to put it another way, it reaches the parts of the brain that ‘clean’ language does not.
I bring all this up because, from time to time, I have been advised to remove all the swearing from my writing in order to access certain markets. Yet I’m not going to. Not because I’m stubborn (I am stubborn, but that’s irrelevant at this point) but because swearing has a place in my writing – in the dialogue of characters who come from a background where dropping the occasional curse into conversation is considered normal. I swear when I feel the situation is appropriate. I am certain a career soldier has no compunction about it. It is, after all, nothing more than a collection of letters.
I am going to leave the last word on the subject to a man who should have the last word on many subjects – Stephen Fry:
Swearing is a really important part of one’s life. It would be impossible to imagine going through life without swearing and without enjoying swearing. There used to be mad, silly, prissy people who used to say swearing was a sign of a poor vocabulary – such utter nonsense. The people I know who swear the most tend to have the widest vocabularies and the kind of person who says swearing is a sign of a poor vocabulary usually have a pretty poor vocabulary themselves. The sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of a lack of education or a lack of verbal interest or – is just a fucking lunatic.