18 November 2013

The Art of Profanity 粗口藝術


We react to life’s little vicissitudes – nicking the car door, dropping the phone on a concrete pavement or losing hours of work to a computer crash – with a curse word or two. If some brute walks by and knocks the coffee right out of our hand, the appropriate response is: What the fuck? Swearing is one of those things that we do everyday and nearly everywhere. But like breaking wind and picking our nose, profanity is only bad when someone else does it. Most of us are too squeamish or sanctimonious to own up to it. Rarely in the human experience has something so universally shared been so vehemently condemned and denied.

Turning society into a nanny state


Profanity exists in every culture. Curse words are the first vocabulary we learn in a foreign language and the only one we remember years later. The linguistic phenomenon can be traced as far back as Ancient Egypt and Babylon. Literary giants like William Shakespeare, James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw were known to use obscenity inventively in their works, as did J.D. Salinger in his coming-of-age classic Catcher in the Rye. These days you can’t enjoy a Hollywood action flick or a crime drama on cable television without getting an earful of the f-word. Whether it is in literature or pop culture, coarse language helps deliver a jolt and a pinch of realism to reflect the way people actually talk.

But the near ubiquity of profanity doesn’t stop us from feeling prudish about it. In the ‘70s, American comedian George Carlin listed “Seven Dirty Words” in a stand up routine to poke fun at society’s unease toward cursing. The act got him arrested for disturbing the peace and made him the First Amendment hero in a landmark Supreme Court decision. It also led to sweeping indecency regulation in American broadcasting, including the proliferation of minced oaths – euphemistic expressions like “gosh,” “heck,” “shoot” and “freaking” – in an attempt to remove the sting of the original words. Since then, obscenity has been bleeped on television and replaced with the phrase “[expletive deleted]” in the print media. The venerable New York Times, a bastion of free speech that prides itself on printing all the news that’s fit to print, has adopted an internal profanity policy to preserve “the newspaper’s character” and “civility in the public discourse.” The paper’s policy suggests that, even in this day and age, decorum and manners still trump honest reporting.

That was 40 years ago, so let's move on


Let’s face it, swear words are but a string of syllables. What makes “vagina” an anatomy term and “cunt” an abominable abuse is purely arbitrary. At some point we need to be adult about our speech and admit that there is a time and place for every word. After all, a kindergarten classroom is very different from a poker game, and The Sopranos shouldn’t be treated the same way as Pocahontas. So long as it is not directed at children or used in a pejorative way toward minority groups, profanity is an integral part of language to convey horror, confusion and extreme displeasure. Experienced writers understand that curse words are a literary device just like metaphors and puns: having too many of them takes away their effect, but a judicious use can go a long way. If Quentin Tarantino had sanitized Pulp Fiction by changing Vincent Vega’s line to “[the French] wouldn’t know what on earth a quarter pounder is,” the famous diner scene would have been flat and forgettable.

One of the memorable scenes in Pulp Fiction


What’s more, studies have shown that profanity is a coping mechanism and a form of anger management. Cursing is an instinctive response to shock and pain, like tripping over a rug or cutting ourselves while we shave. Dropping the f-bomb reduces stress and lets off steam. When used cleverly, swear words can also enhance our sense of humour and promote social bonding. According to Natalie Angier, science journalist for, ironically, the New York Times, a free flow of foul language among close friends may signal harmony instead of hostility. On the other hand, resisting obscenity can lead to asymmetry within a social group and signify a “holier than thou” attitude.

In Asia, the social acceptability of profanity runs the gamut from absolute prohibition to use-as-you-please condonation. In Japan, for instance, swear words are never uttered except during a bar brawl or in hostess clubs. By contrast, in Thailand and much of South East Asia, using coarse language is like adding spices to a stew – one must strike a balance between enhancing the flavours and overpowering the dish. 

They don't even use the word "gosh"


Here in Hong Kong, the cursing culture lies somewhere between conservative Japan and permissive Thailand. In Cantonese, the city’s lingua franca, there are the “Famous Five”: a quintet of single syllable swear words that connote the male and female genitalia and what to do with them. While stressed out citizens curse out loud from time to time, profanity is a telltale sign of the speaker’s social standing – or the lack thereof. A liberal use of swear words in daily speech often indicates a deficiency in character and pedigree.

And so when primary school teacher Alpais Lam (林慧思) was caught on video shouting expletives at the police during a street protest earlier this year, the entire city came down on her like a ton of bricks. Lam, a mere bystander on the scene, took issues with a police blockade and vented her frustration at the frontline officers with a few choice words. Days after the video was posted on YouTube, angry parents demanded that Lam be fired from her job for the untoward behaviour. A crime squad was dispatched to investigate the incident as if it were a multiple homicide. Even our Chief Executive C.Y. Leung weighed in on the controversy and ordered the Secretary of Education to submit a report to explain the travesty of human decency.

Ms. Lam needs our support

The so-called “Miss. Lam Incident” (林老師事件) underscores a deep cultural issue in Hong Kong. The undue emphasis we place on civility means that the bigger offense often falls by the wayside. Eager to use our distaste for profanity as a diversion tactic, authorities shift the focus away from the real issue – the police’s mishandling of a peaceful demonstration – and throw the outspoken educator under the bus of public opinion. Those angry parents never think for a moment that while Lam’s choice of words may seem poor, it was the poor choice of a private citizen outside the confines of the classroom walls. And while the idea of shouting abuse at police officers may be bad, it is a constitutionally protected bad idea.

It seems most people would rather be lied to
by a well-spoken man than hear a curse word


British philosopher Bertrand Russell once said: “Obscenity is whatever happens to shock some elderly and ignorant magistrate.” When it comes to language and speech, the line between vulgar and provocative is not only blurred, but also subjective, personal and arbitrary. Like many preconceived notions about gender and race, our queasiness toward foul language is socially conditioned and does not hold up to scrutiny. To avoid self-censorship and aphasia, sensible adults should recognise that every word, even the dirty ones, serves a purpose. Profanity is not a question of right and wrong but rather a matter of taste.

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This article previously appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column "The Urban Confessional."

As printed in MANIFESTO