Over the past few Christmases, my family, like many families, has always kept at least one TV glued to TBS’ 24 hours of A Christmas Story. At this point, the movie is barely entertaining. I’ve sat down and watched at least 10% of it during various Christmas Day breaks for years running—and, now, the movie is the filmic equivalent of saying the word “Yellow” over and over and over again until the word loses its meaning. I can quote its lines like Bill Murray playing Jeopardy! during Groundhog Day. Not even a great film—your Godfathers, your Citizen Kanes, your Billy Madisons—deserves that level of memorization.
There is, however, one scene that still kills me. I think it’s because the scene continues to strike a cord, and it makes me nostalgic for something that almost, but not exactly, happened in my life, the way movies are sometimes able to trick you into thinking you grew up in unknown places like small town 1958. The scene doesn’t involve the faint glow of electric sex, or an evil Santa at the mall, or a chorus of elves chanting “You’ll shoot your eye out.” It’s when Ralphie first drops the word “fuck,” sanitized as “fudge,” in front of his dad, and the chaotic aftermath that comes with it.
Every guy has been there. Everyone. Everyone has said the wrong word at the wrong time, and everyone has subsequently dealt with the glares and the coughs and the “Woahs” that come with it. You feel like—well, we may as well say it—a shithead when you accidentally let an f-bomb slip out in front of an elder, and your negative reaction seems to stem from both nurture and nature: You’ve been trained by society and religion to feel shame for acting inappropriately, and human beings, at this point, have practically evolved a revulsion to certain words, whether it be “mewling quim” in the 19th century, “damn” in the early 20th, or “fuckface cuntstick” in the 21st. (Lately, it has become harder to shock anyone.)
Bouncing off that parenthetical is my point: This will all change very soon. As Slate’s Matthew J.X. Malady and others have pointed out, societal mores toward profanity are changing. In a good way. We’ve become less sensitive to cursing in public, on television, and, most prominently, on the Internet, and that, in turn, has caused the almighty f-bomb to barely cause offense, while the really offensive words—“retard," “fag," the n-word—are now the terms with no place in decent society:
While there’s nothing new about words becoming more and less taboo with the passage of time, the pace of that process seems to be accelerating—and, even more interestingly, the categories of words that tend to bother people seem to be changing fairly dramatically. In many instances, what’s super-offensive now is quite different from that which was the height of taboo even as recently as 40 or 50 years ago. And that’s because we’ve changed—both in how we share information, and with respect to what most unsettles us.
“Curse words tend to based on whatever societies find most taboo, and most scary, and most interesting,” says Melissa Mohr, whose book Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing examines how and why people have resorted to profane language, from ancient Roman times to the present. “When they lose power, it’s just those taboos getting weaker, and new ones coming in to replace them.”
By around age 12, I was a prodigious cursor. I dropped f-bombs on the baseball field, I muttered “shit-for-brains” or “asshole” under my breath in class. My story isn’t uncommon for a preteen. While South Park’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker, for all of their brilliance, did cut it a little too soon by purportedly showing how third-grade boys actually talked, they did get this right: Everyone grows up cursing. An insider-y culture at middle school keeps that secret from reaching the ears of teachers of parents, you're called a rebellious teen when you curse in high school, and—exempting one glorious collegiate period when it's perfectly fine to tell your political science seminar that Pol Pot was a real prick—by your mid-20s you’re in an office setting, repressing your true vocabulary potential. Except for that four year college period, it's never okay to swear.
Which is the actual problem with profanity: It’s not that these ultimately meaningless things (referring, here, to words that describe screwing and pooping, not words that slur a minority group) are commonly used to shock people. It’s that many of us are shamed when we accidentally drop them in the conference call or a little too loudly at the restaurant table. It might sound silly, but it does cause a toll when you're not acting like who you want to be. Repression is never good.
Now these puritanical mores are slipping away. You’ll see less and less religious hand-wringing and elderly anger at “kids these days” and their lack of manners. Which is ultimately a terrific development. Because who gives a shit if you curse? Profanity is versatile. It’s fun. And it's ultimately like a lot like many of the sex acts it so cleverly describes—it’s not something to be shamed over.
Anyway. I think our new freelancer is around if anyone wants to argue.
[Gym teacher cursing image via Shutterstock]