Monday, March 28, 2011

Can I Swear In Class Now?

This past week, I jokingly told students that I wanted to teach a summer class in swearing.  My wife believes that I have a MFA level profanity.  I had one text in mind, but On Bullshit is really about lying and truth telling not swearing.  A PDF of the essay that became the book is here.

I was thrilled today when big boy blogger Andrew Sullivan pointed me to this John McWhorter article on swearing in pop music.  McWhorter asserts, "Modern English does have true curse words, however: Currently the main one is the N-word . . . and this is because a genuine taboo does continue to reign in American discourse when it comes to race."  McWhorter supports his proposition by reminding us that the FCC decided that Bono would not be punished for using an F-bomb because "his usage . . .did not refer to 'sexual or excretory organs or activities.' To wit, its meaning has changed despite its etymology, and it is no longer, properly speaking, a 'curse' at all. It is more informal than profane."

What would George Carlin say?  He, after all, made himself famous saying the 7 words one can't say on TV.  More importantly, how can I use a textbook that claims that the class is unnecessary?  McWhorter concludes,
Because change is gradual, the transition of our other “curse” words to informality is not yet a full one. Questions will continue, for example, as to whether children should be exposed to them and at what age. Even here, however, modern twelve-year-olds of many demographics use “curse” words among themselves with a fluency that further deflates any meaningful classification of these words as generally “inappropriate.” The main issue is that in real language, yesterday’s hot stuff is always today’s papier-mache. Hence language change is not only a matter of people giving up prithee and forsooth, but one of The New Yorker printing shit and ordinary people texting WTF 24/7 and dancing at weddings to a song called “Fuck You.” Zounds indeed. 
On a personal note, I always thought that the Chicken Dance at weddings was a bit profane, so McWhorter's prediction doesn't really phase me.

As far as teaching the class, McWhorter's assertion that twelve-year olds can render the content meaningless doesn't worry me either.  Most students think the content of grammar and literature class is meaningless.  The fact that the N-word is the only real curse word does give me pause.  I really can't teach a class on one word word, and I certainly don't want to spend a my whole summer using the N-word.

On second thought, I guess it really doesn't matter; no one is going to be able to offer anything new to the curriculum, not even classes with substantive content instead of fanciful classes about one or seven words.  The bullshit that is Governor Daugaard's budget fucked up that possibility.

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