On Swearing

While watching Delhi Belly last week, every time a curse word was exchanged on screen, I heard responses from the audience that ranged from disapproving grunts to coy smirks to stifled giggles to spontaneous LOL’s. Even if a particular dialogue or situation was not funny, some viewers just couldn’t help but reciprocate to swearing. Every. Single. Time.

Swearing, in and of itself, is not funny. May be in this particular case it was amusing because this is the first time a Bollywood movie is peppered with so many expletives. Funny or not, we do react strongly to swearing. And the reaction isn’t just emotional, it is also involuntary. Swearing is a linguistic instrument that we often sorely need to render our passion (and other emotions) compellingly. When the adrenaline is running sky-high, replacing a curse word with one of its genteel synonyms just doesn’t seem to invoke the same feeling (and provoke the same response). Delhi Belly wouldn’t have worked as superbly as it did, if it weren’t for all those curse words that sound so natural, so organic, so real in this hilarious movie.

These concluding remarks from Stephen Pinker’s essay “What the F***?” beautifully celebrate the power of swearing:

When used judiciously, swearing can be hilarious, poignant, and uncannily descriptive. More than any other form of language, it recruits our expressive faculties to the fullest: the combinatorial power of syntax; the evocativeness of metaphor; the pleasure of alliteration, meter, and rhyme; and the emotional charge of our attitudes, both thinkable and unthinkable. It engages the full expanse of the brain: left and right, high and low, ancient and modern. Shakespeare, no stranger to earthy language himself, had Caliban speak for the entire human race when he said, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.” [From: The Harvard Brain (PDF) See Page 20]

If swearing ever died, this should be its epitaph.

And the savage chicken (below) nods in agreement.

Also read: On Bullshit


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