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The case for profanity

There’s a reason why people who swear tend to be better adjusted as human beings: evolution

brunch Updated: Apr 15, 2018 12:34 IST
Tanuja Chandra
Tanuja Chandra
Hindustan Times
We squash and stuff away parts of our personalities that may be seen as ugly, dirty, rude, dumb, selfish
We squash and stuff away parts of our personalities that may be seen as ugly, dirty, rude, dumb, selfish(Photo Imaging: Parth Garg)

There’s a daunting place called the world, which points out time after time all that is wrong with you. And since each of us is plagued with flaws aplenty, we are always (pardon me, T. S. Eliot) preparing faces to meet the faces that we meet. We squash and stuff away parts of our personalities that may be seen as ugly, dirty, rude, dumb, selfish. These stay within us though, they just stay unseen, and become denser by the day, eventually revealing themselves as all tumours must, in addiction, anger, pimples, hives, hair-loss, profanity. These external manifestations are thought of as odious in good society but they air out our blemishes. So, are we better off with the milder of them, like profanity?

The F-word

A documentary I once saw featured a young woman in England with Tourette’s syndrome who had a particularly difficult tic to deal with. Along with chronic body movements caused by the disorder, the F-word would erupt from her mouth every few seconds. Upon this she had no control, nor modern medicine a cure. Would the considerable social awkwardness be less if she blurted out a more palatable word? Absolutely, yes. And yet, in Tourette’s, trying to suppress outbursts is like holding in a sneeze or not scratching an itch, it complicates matters if unrelieved. I have a feeling the principle isn’t different for people who are lucky enough not to suffer from the disorder, but who voluntarily like to swear. For studies have indicated that users of profanities are often happier, more intelligent and less stressed than abstainers.

Swear words are almost always of a sexual nature and society has always been sheepish about sex

Why is there such an aversion to ‘bad’ words in society? I know perfectly wonderful, generous, caring people whose language is peppered with swear words and mind you, gaalis don’t observe boundaries of class, educational background or grammar. They are free-flowing agents, democratic and non-discriminating, embracers of all emotions and situations in life. Non-practitioners complain that usage shows a certain ‘faux aggression.’ And yet, social scientists would argue that there is something of an evolutionary advantage in swearing. The human race is the only species that uses words to express itself, unlike animals and other creatures who need to use physical means, often violent ones, to have an outlet. Even human toddlers before they learn speech, often bite others to express anger. A nice, adjusted adult however, will get the anger out of their body with a string of choice abuses. Where’s the harm in that?

Conveniently, the same bad words work for flurries of joy as well. Thank goodness, I say or wouldn’t it be a tad ungainly if one leapt at someone every time the heart surged? Imagine this: a person offers you a chocolate choux pastry, you take a bite, you go goggle-eyed, you grab the person in a death-grip and chew their arm in glee. Simply awkward.

And the S-word

If truth be told, sometimes respectable words aren’t enough. Communication gets a zing with swear words, sentences acquire a vibrancy, an urgency of emotion. Sample a now-legendary exchange between Pooh and Piglet.

Pooh: What day is it today?

Piglet: Monday.

Pooh: F**k.

Some fun, some laughter, a bit of adventurousness is to be had in life, isn’t it? Has a law been broken here or a violent crime committed? No, and yet, swearing is considered taboo. I suppose at the heart of the matter lies that old, contentious issue of sex. Swear words are almost always of a sexual nature and society has always been sheepish about sex. Maybe if we achieved some sort of equilibrium in our attitude towards sex and didn’t feel embarrassed about how many times I’ve used the word ‘sex’ in this paragraph, we might also consider the case for profanity.

When two clashing thoughts come together, something happens that hasn’t happened before, and in that moment, language comes alive

Language changes. As it must. When our expressions bounce and spin in unexpected ways, when our sentence structures expand and contract weirdly, when spellings of words go a bit batty, a new kind of alchemy is tossed into the air. We need not term that a corruption of something, we should revel in it. There was great beauty in Chaucer’s English, there’s great beauty in the Hindi my parents speak, but there’s also a sparkling vitality in the cadence and flow of my 17-year-old niece’s language or indeed, my nephew’s colourful chats with his cricketing buddies. These might pass us by if we remain perched on the high tower of purism. When two clashing thoughts come together, something happens that hasn’t happened before, and in that moment, language comes alive. TBH, it should be thought of as fun AF.

(As for those pesky flaws that we’re constantly put in the docks for, well, that’s a matter to discuss at leisure because subverting ideas of beauty and goodness needs a larger word count.)

Tanjua Chandra

Author bio: A famous filmmaker, known for movies like Dushman, Sur and Sangharsh, Tanuja turned author with Bijnis Woman: Stories of Uttar Pradesh I Heard from My Parents, Mausis and Buas. Of late, she’s also directed Irrfan Khan-starrer Qarib Qarib Singlle.

From HT Brunch, April 15, 2018

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