04 Mind and Body Contemplations

No Apologies — I Don’t Swear, and There Are No Swear Words In My Writing

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I don’t curse, cuss, swear, use expletives, profane, or utter obscenities.

I have often wondered why I am so and thought I would share my ‘stream-of-thought’ with you. It may entertain you, and in this big world, there may be some like me who’ll tell me so.

Is it my upbringing? Was it too straight-laced? Well, I wasn’t so protected from the world. I had quite a liberal environment, being an ‘army brat’ (not sure where that phrase originated, I didn’t particularly feel we were brats). There were few restrictions on friends, going out, or practices. I went to Central School* for seven years, and, By Jove, you hear every known curse word there, especially in Hindi. I watched many American and British movies in my youth and read widely enough that I am no stranger to English invective.

And yet, the worst verbal or oral bad words I use are ‘Bloody hell’ and ‘By Jove’. And none in the three other Indian languages I speak.

Perhaps it is about what we read. My reading, as a child and youth, as of many English-educated Indians of the 1950s to 80s, comprised Enid Blyton (Famous Five, The Five Find-Outers, Secret Seven, and such), Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Richmal Crompton (the William books), W. E. Johns (Biggles), etc. Later on, it was Graham Greene, Oscar Wilde, Kingsley Amis, and their ilk.

You may find this ridiculously old-fashioned or British upper crust, but I suppose there are many Indians, and perhaps some Britishers, who would relate to this milieu. Especially in the Indian Army, there was and is a ‘propah’ British feel to living and behaviour. Gentlemanly and decorous in peace, fight like hell in war.

The fact is that my cursing reticence is not born of naive innocence. I am neither saintly nor perfectly even-tempered. In private moments, once in a long while, I do cuss. Yet I balk at using four-letter words aloud and in public. They just don’t come out of my mouth.

And there’s more than instinct at work in my mind. When I think about it, I find cursing regressive, unintelligent and lazy. It’s like accepting defeat to inadequate vocabulary, expressiveness, thought and effort. People saying ‘fish’ instead of the proverbial doesn’t much reduce its distastefulness.

Replacing quoted cuss words in writing with symbols is good; better than putting ellipses for all but the first and last letters, which does nothing to alleviate the effect. And it does suffice to write ‘I cursed’ instead of the explicit.

On TV, next to excessive violence, especially against women, nothing makes me abandon a series or movie faster than finding it peppered with expletives.

I get a sinking feeling at work when a senior person I otherwise respect descends to cursing a person or situation. Silently but surely, I let him down a notch or two in my esteem. I’ve also noticed, you may agree, that women are, in general, much less likely to curse. Notch up a point for them.

Medium writers are surprisingly spare users of obscenities compared to those on other platforms. But sometimes, a new story will catch my eye from an unfamiliar writer, and I’ll be reading it with pleasure when suddenly an obscenity explodes like an IED on the page. If it doesn’t immediately make me back out of the story, I somehow stagger on with my bloodied mind and finish it, ruing the ruination of an otherwise perfect piece.

You’ll have guessed by now that I follow writers who don’t employ expletives or do so extremely rarely.

If you use swear words, perhaps you may say it is limiting to avoid them altogether, that we can’t truly express ourselves without using cuss words at the right juncture.

But what do expletives express? Anger, frustration, shock, dismay, irritation, joy? I have never felt restricted or disadvantaged by the disuse of profanity. Consider the contrary, that casual or excessive swearing may not convey the shades of our feeling and the depth of our views. Why not use proper words and sentences instead?

Or is it about the effect we want? Does it make some men feel macho, alpha, stylish, bonded? But what about evolving away from being cave dwellers? Any takers?

If you’re a habitual offender, dear reader, please don’t take offence at my views. I only seek a more beautiful world.

The English language, nay, all languages, can aesthetically express every subtle thing we want to convey, good and bad. Let’s not litter the streets of our minds with rubbish.

(* Cantonment schools for children of defence services personnel all over India.)


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