I acknowledge that I have used four-letter words familiarly all my life, and have put them into books with some sense that I was insisting on the proper freedom of the artist. I have applauded the extinction of those d—-d emasculations of the Genteel Tradition and the intrusion into serious fiction of honest words with honest meanings and emphasis. I have wished, with D. H. Lawrence, for the courage to say shit before a lady, and have sometimes had my wish.
Words are not obscene: naming things is a legitimate verbal act. And “frank” does not mean “vulgar,” any more than “improper” means “dirty.” What vulgar does mean is “common”; what improper means is “unsuitable.” Under the right circumstances, any word is proper. But when any sort of word, especially a word hitherto taboo and therefore noticeable, is scattered across a page like chocolate chips through a tollhouse cookie, a real impropriety occurs. The sin is not the use of an “obscene” word; it is the use of a loaded word in the wrong place or in the wrong quantity. It is the sin of false emphasis, which is not a moral but a literary lapse, related to sentimentality. It is the sin of advertisers who so plaster a highway with neon signs that you can’t find the bar or liquor store you’re looking for. Like any excess, it quickly becomes comic …
Some acts, like some words, were never meant to be casual. That is why houses contain bedrooms and bathrooms. Profanity and so-called obscenities are literary resources, verbal ways of rendering strong emotion. They are not meant to occur every ten seconds, any more than—Norman Mailer to the contrary notwithstanding—orgasms are.
Wallace Stegner on Profanity – Magazine – The Atlantic. In the forty-seven years since Stegner published this piece — the whole of which is not online anywhere, as far as I can tell, which is a shame, because it’s a brilliantly funny and insightful essay — the situation have gotten far worse. Swearing is now a lost art. I should know: I grew up under the tutelage of a virtuoso. I’ve never heard anyone curse as rhythmically, poetically, and polysyllabically as my father did.
But the key to successful cursing is restraint: saving the most powerful words for the occasion when they are needed. As Stegner comments elsewhere in the essay, if you “say shit before a lady,” what do you say when your car breaks down at rush hour on the Santa Monica Freeway? Presumably, in those days, you would take that opportunity to drop the f-bomb, but to judge by my Twitter feed, many people now use that word fifty times a day, which leaves them with absolutely nothing in reserve when something genuinely bad happens. Not only is it not the f-bomb any more, it’s not even the f-sparkler. The word has been eviscerated. I am not speaking in moral terms here, just linguistic ones: the spread of cursing into more and more situations where it once would have been forbidden has been one more form of linguistic inflation, like calling everything that’s even mildly pleasant “awesome.” It betokens a lack of judgment, a failure of assessment, and it leaves us with limited or no linguistic resources in the hour of need. We need to clean up our language, if for no other reason than to have room to make it dirty when dirty is really called for.