Dennis O’Neil: Dirty Words, Done Dirt Cheap

Somewhere or other I read, or maybe heard in a lecture, that the area of your brain that activates when you use a naughty word is different that the part that activates when you aren’t being a pottymouth. Interesting, because it means that somewhere, some time, back in the murky eons those words that you never heard coming from a pulpit had some survival value. If they didn’t, evolution (Evolution?) wouldn’t have bequeathed to them their own little piece of cerebral real estate.

I wonder if they still own it.

Because there’s nothing special about such words, not any more. Once, in the Catholic days of my youth, I heard those words only on what we might deem special occasions, usually when someone was seriously pissed off. (“Pissed off” was, I think, considered more vulgar than sinful, but still. you wouldn’t say it at Thanksgiving dinner.) I heard them very little until I joined the Navy and then I probably heard them pretty often and after my discharge, not so much again, and now…

Holy cow! All the time! The movies. The television programs! The most common usage is what when we were genteel we might have called “the F word.” Often, on basic cable and broadcast shows, it’s bleeped and I wonder why, say, Jon Stewart uses it so often knowing that we won’t actually hear it but we’ll know what it is anyway. He doesn’t need it to get his points across, surely, and we already know that he’s sophisticated and worldly because, you know, he’s a television star. (I also consider him to be a national treasure, but that’s a whole other discussion.)

The F word was pretty shocking in some contexts, but it wasn’t the biggie. That distinction, the young me might have claimed, belongs to the GD word because that hair curler, is specifically forbidden by nothing less than the 10 Commandments themselves. Surely you haven’t forgotten “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”?

The GD word is sprinkled throughout J,D, Salinger’s book The Catcher in the Rye which is taught in middle schools and so I guess it’s okay with most folks.

It, and the F word, have become everyday language and so I once more wonder if they set off cerebral alarms and if they don’t, have we lost something? We must have taboos for a reason. It’s not the words themselves we’re concerned with – they are, after all, just words – but the very existence of taboos. Get rid of them and maybe we’ll also be getting rid of something we don’t know that we need.

And wouldn’t that be fucked up!