I love swearing. Anyone who has worked with me in one office space has had to endure my incessant under-the-breath swearing in all the languages and dialects I have been exposed to during different stages of my life. There’s just something about the feeling when the right swear word jumps off the tip of my tongue and spreads across the room. It’s empowering. Relieving. Soothing and invigorating at the same time. At least to me.
Knowing that you can swear in someone’s presence puts you at ease, doesn’t it? That first obscenity you allow yourself to utter might be a sign of a friendship emerging from the cold shadow of the acquaintance zone. And no, a substitute - “heck”, “darn”, “flip” - won’t work. Using them is like smoking calendula flowers when all you want is some cheap tobacco. For a swear word to really hit the mark, it has to cross a certain threshold. If you’re alone while reading it, try screaming “heeeeeeck” at the top of your lungs. Now replace the word with your favorite one-syllable R-rated word, and see the difference.
My relationship with swearing started in grade school. As I was the youngest kid in class, other kids treated me differently. Not like a complete equal. More like a younger brother. And the first time I cussed using a “three-story swear word”, as we used to call them, my mates ran to the teacher and ratted me out for using mat. Some mates they were!
Mat, for those who grew up on the other side of the already fallen Iron Curtain, is a type of profane language in Slavic tongues. Typically, language commissions and linguists see mat as words derived from four core stems – the harshest terms for male and female genitals, the act of copulation and, interestingly, the word whore. What about human waste? Well, actually no. “Unlike other languages, Russian obscenity is rooted entirely in sexuality. Defecation is not part of cursing <...>” wrote Victor Erofeyev for the New Yorker.
In Lithuanian, the language I feel most comfortable in, the foulest layer of obscenity is derived from Russian by most speakers. We take the words as they are, with all their suffixes and prefixes, and drop them like nukes in our speech. Some longer expressions, we have just adapted “as-is”. I’m pretty sure that the little kids swearing on their ride to school don’t even know what the equivalent of “I'll do unspeakable things to your mom” they use means. For kids know that it’s not just about what it means, but about how it sounds.
In middle school, an overheard swear word led to one particularly strict teacher asking me to wash my mouth with a bar of soap. The whole ordeal strained our relationship and exiled me to the back of the class. The reason I graduated in a pretty impractical field and not Chemical Engineering can probably be traced back to that day.
Interestingly, I don’t use swear words in my writing. Apart from this essay, none of the things I put out in the last year feature strong language. And even here, I went through and meticulously cut most of the profanity from the first draft. It might be that I'm always trying to make my writing more wholesome. But perhaps this aversion comes not from a position of virtue. Simply put, devoid of sound, cuss words become mere shells of their glorious and loud selves. They just don't look that great on paper. And don’t get me started on people who try to neuter these already impotent creatures by replacing letters with asterisks. To use their parlance, f*ck that.