Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Up Yours

It was a charming sight of a father with his two young boys with closely cropped blond hair.  The older one looked about 8 or 9, and his brother looked two years his junior.  Interestingly enough, the older one was crying as the three walked towards me and then past me.

The father was wearing cargo shorts, which reminded me of this WSJ piece, and sported a well-trimmed beard.  He looked like he, too, might have been blond when young but the hair had turned a light shade of brown with age.

As they passed me, I noticed that the father's tshirt had in big, bold, uppercase:
A father wearing that tshirt while walking with his sons in a public space.  I imagined his sons asking him: "Dad, what does 'up yours' mean?"  Does that father want his young boys to learn such phrases?  I suppose the father responds to their questions with "shut your f-king mouth!"

Or, imagine a young girl holding her father's hand spotting this tshirt and then asking her father what "up yours" means.  I feel sorry for that father who has to figure out how to dodge that question.

We live in strange times.  But then, a presidential candidate has said and done so many awful things that the latest count here is at 183 reasons why he is unfit to be president.  Between the father and this candidate, the two boys are getting quite some lessons on how to grow up to be horrible adults :(

It is not that swear words are new, or that they are not uttered.  I imagine every language has a colorful vocabulary of swear words.  However:
If we keep the obscenity stream going at our current levels, we may possibly wear the sheen right off what have been sturdy favourites for a long time, from centuries to well-nigh forever. And that would be mind-boggling. 
Makes sense, right?  If swear words are used all the time, then where in lies its power to shock us?
“Profanity is socially useful because it is socially risky,” says Adams. We need linguistic boundaries to transgress in order to register objection, pain and social solidarity, and it’s precisely the transgression, not the words, that matters. Consider five words for sexual intercourse: “copulate,” “f–k,” “screw,” “swive,” “boink.” Only one is partially blanked out because only one is socially agreed to be profanity. On the flip side, “f–k off” has no sexual meaning at all.
No f–king way! ;)

Why is "f–k" so attractive to use?
its combination of explosive consonantal start, short vowel and hard ending—all coloured by the emotional flavour of a sexual term—made it just right for an expletive. When you spill coffee on your new white shirt, yelling “swive!” doesn’t cut it. From expletive to intensifer—“you f–king idiot!”—to literally every other syntactical niche, “f–k” took over.
It is f–king crazy that there are people who do research on these topics! ;)
A name as old and common as Tom and Harry, “dick” went the way of “cock” by 1900—but only in an underground fashion at first, and right up to the 1960s hundreds of newborn Americans annually were given the name. An early election ad for Richard Nixon, “Tricky Dick” himself, reads, astonishingly to contemporary eyes: “They can’t lick our Dick.”
Holy shit; they had such an ad?

Academics, and wannabe-intellectuals like me, write such things because of the importance of understanding even these aspects of life; after all, our lives are not always sugar and spice and everything nice.  But, I would not want that father lecturing his sons about how "up yours" is an awesome f-king swear.  I would like to, however, tell that father that he is one f-king asshole of an example of humanity!      


Anne in Salem said...

Steven Pinker in The Stuff of Thought says bodily functions and sexual terms are taboo therefore hold the most power as swear words. Those chapters are quite interesting.

My children roll their eyes when I reprimand them for swearing in front of me. Their terms have been so over-used and so watered down that they don't see the vulgarity in them. Sad.

I still remember the first time I heard my grandfather swear. He never swore in front of women or children, as was standard in his day. I wonder if the father on the walking path has a wife or girlfriend and what she thinks of the shirt. I wonder if he'd wear it in his mother's presence. I would like to hear how he explains it to his children. Sad.

Mike Hoth said...

Anne has beaten me to mentioning Steven Pinker? I thought I'd be the one to look well-read and academic!

Cursing is an interesting topic to look into. I once saw a film about a 19th Century time traveler who comes to present day, only to be horrified at somebody uttering the phrase "oh my God". The religious in this country are no longer shocked when that happens.

I believe it was Steven Pinker who also predicted that we would replace our old curses with new ones, such as "Retard". Our fears of mental issues have begun to replace fears of bodily functions (pooping, copulating) and so it has become more offensive in our culture to make light of mental disorders. "Up yours" would probably offend me less than "You are retarded", so perhaps Pinker is correct.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, I too would want to know if that guy wears that tshirt when he goes to say hi to his mother. I would so like to know how he explains that phrase to his eight-year old. It is insane.

"would probably offend me less"??? I need to reconsider your college credentials, Mike ;)

Ramesh said...

I wondered about the sexual slant to all swearing. The same thought has struck both Anne and Mike ; I hadn't heard of Steven Pinker so I didn't know this was a much researched subject !

Brings me to a hostelmate of mine in college. He had the most intricate and colourful vocabulary of swear words in Tamil, but none of them were sexual. Examples of his creativity was "May thunder fall on your head", "May your head explode", May you be buried alive", and so on. They don't sound quite so dramatic in English, they had the desired effect in Tamil and I remember them even after 35 years :)

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, there are cultures that are known for their colorful curses, right? And they are not sexual either--at least not most of them.