Sunday, February 10, 2013

In Which I Curse A Lot

Editor's Note: This is Andy Tisdel, proprietor of Tisdel's Tirades, talking. This post probably has nothing to do with FEMA Corps, and does not reflect the opinions of a majority of FEMA Corps Team Summit 5; it is nothing more or less than an ordinary blog post.

I have a thing about swear words, and I suppose about words in general: they don’t mean a whole heck of a lot, really. There’s nothing intrinsically shocking about the word fuck; we’re just used to it being a bad word, so we use it like a bludgeon. This fucking guy. Fuck him. Fuck his life. But the thing is, while the meaning of ‘fuck’ lends it some of its value, part of the power of a cuss is the minor taboo you break when you use it. It lends strength to the emotion you’re trying to get across. Use a 'dirty word' too often and you devalue it of its power. I had a housemate once who must have dropped a cuss once in every ten or fifteen words on average; she never seemed to understand that the words had become no longer shocking, but commonplace and dull, when they exited her mouth. I believe in conserving one’s cusses for the proper occasion for maximum effect. Let me put it this way: there are many times when curses will not do, but there are some times where no other word will do.

That whole long introductory mindset is kind of how I feel about the overuse and abuse of superlatives. They’re tossed around so frequently in this culture that they, too, cease to impress. Great, excellent, amazing, awesome, fantastic, wonderful, superlative, glorious, triumphant, overpowering, magnificent. They’re applied to the most trivial accomplishments, tossed around in everyday conversation where ‘good’ or ‘average’ should be—and I’m as guilty of this as anyone. In the world of NFL journalism, calling someone a ‘star’ used to denote exceptional play. Now there are so many so-called ‘superstars’ in the NFL cosmos that the whole cluster will surely explode within a few hundred million years. (On the bright side, so to speak, the elements they release will surely populate a whole new generation.) The unique meanings of each superlative are also sanded down over time, interchanged until they’re indistinguishable from each other. When I say amazing, I mean something that does amaze me. Awesome is worthy of awe, fantastic like a fantasy, wonderful full of wonder, excellent truly excelling. It’s a less fun and less interesting language, to say nothing of conversations, when those are swapped out for one another without a thought.

These words are essentially shortcuts. They have an agreed-upon definition, bland and pasty like so much linguistic oatmeal, and you can use any one of them and evoke basically the same emotion. There's no passion, no meaning behind them. And superlatives are far from the only offenders; clichéd phrases follow a similar path, as does bloodless, sanitized corporate-speak ("I want to have a discussion about how our new initiative is going to impact the situation with our resources"). All of these sources lack authenticity. They lack originality and clarity of expression. One might even argue that they are nearly devoid of deeper meaning; instead of standing in for concepts, they are vehicles by which we can avoid thinking about the deeper issues that they raise. 

This is the paradox I always run into with language. I believe that words don’t have intrinsic meanings to them; they’re just sounds or collections of letters that follow certain rules and that we’ve agreed represent particular ideas or symbols in the real world. It’s the concepts behind the words that are really important, which is why I have a certain impatience with sanitized language—we all know what you mean, it doesn’t matter which words you’re using!—and attempt to describe ideas and experiences with the words that I feel fit the best. It’s all about trying to get across the underlying concepts. 

But I do care about those words, because each is a highly specialized tool that comes with its own unique meanings and connotations. It’s the lightning and thelightning bug, as Mark Twain said. There are those times where no other word will do. This fucking fucker's fucked. But clichés and undeserved praise and inoffensive blither are part of our everyday language, so what the hell do you do with them? Throw them out? Too simple. Just mean them. Own your words, as one sports journalist put it. Counter meaninglessness with authenticity. Put yourself into what you say, because guess what? Your words define you. It's up to you to define them. Use crazy insults. Play with your language. Avoid throwaway phrases or sentences. For fuck's sake, let the things that come out of your mouth mean something. If nothing else, your conversations will get considerably livelier. 

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