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The Proper Use of Improper Language

Of all the profane people in my life, I learned the most about swearing from my Aunt Nelly, who was a true fountainhead of smut...
 
 
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Few childhood memories are more poignant than the songs our mothers sang to soothe us to sleep: "Rock-a-Bye Baby," "Hush Little Darling," "Old Granny Grunt." Old Granny who? If you've never heard this particular lullaby, that's because my great-aunt Nelly composed it.

"Oowhh," Nelly would warble as her kids lay huddled in bed, "old Granny Grunt's got a great big. . ." I can't bring myself to complete the line here. Suffice it to say, old Granny Grunt did not have a great big punt, runt, or blunt. What old Granny Grunt had was a great big C-word. She also had, as the end of the rhyme attested, "a mouth like a coal man's arsehole."

And so did Nelly.

In the course of my life, I have consorted with some horrible types, but never have I heard language of the sort that flew from Nelly's mouth. She was a thesaurus of obscenity, a fountainhead of smut. And she looked the part: her bristly, thickset legs splayed when she sat; her mouth was prominent and wet, packed with a snarl of yellow teeth. And she sounded worse than she looked. She had a voice that called to mind Michael Caine being force-fed kitty litter. Her laughter sounded like a pit bull being clubbed to death.

Needless to say, we tended to avoid Nelly's company. When we were out with my mother, it was not unusual to be yanked violently into a shop doorway. This usually meant that Nelly had been spotted. In the event that she spotted us back, the entire block would reverberate with Nelly's standard greeting: "Oi, you old scratch-[C-word]!"

If my mother was put off by Nelly, I was mortified by her. I remember she accosted me once as I made my way into the bathroom. "Going for a wank?" she said. I'd never heard this synonym for masturbation before. Indeed, I'd never heard of masturbation. I was a kid. I was going pee-pee.

It's important to note here that Nelly wasn't a child molester, at least not to my knowledge. She simply lacked a social filter. She was an etiquette half-wit.

Dear Miss Manners,

My husband says it's bad form to scream the C-word at the top of one's lungs along a busy street; I think this is perfectly acceptable. Who is right?

Nelly is not around anymore; she died of cancer -- the other C-word -- decades ago. Yet I still can't walk down London's North End Road without casting a wary eye about for her. I've often wondered why, all these years later, she still holds such mythical stature for me. In a family that has boasted thieves, thugs, and swindlers galore, it's puzzling that Nelly should stand out as the grimmest of the lot.

For starters, I'm no prude about swearing. Who can afford to be these days? Even Nelly's relentless innuendo seems pretty tame by today's standards. If I can smile at visions of the president wanking into a sink, why shudder at the memory of the mere word slithering off Nelly's tongue? To answer this, I believe, requires asking a more fundamental question: what does it mean to swear?

Essentially, the word "shit" is no more offensive than the word "feces." They both describe the same matter. But when was the last time you heard anyone say, "Oh, feces, I stubbed my toe"? What distinguishes "feces" from "shit" is that the latter has been deemed a dirty word. And while this distinction may be arbitrary, it's by no means immaterial. Every form of expression has a function, and profanity is no exception. It exists because we need it.

Swear words allow us a quick and easy way to add emphasis. "It's cold," for instance, doesn't carry nearly as much weight as "It's effing cold." Swear words can be used to convey attitude. To say "He effed my wife" says a lot more about the speaker's mood than "He had sex with my wife." And we all know the efficacy of a well-aimed "motherfff" in a tricky traffic situation.

Like it or not, profanity is a vital part of human interaction. Swear words are the Swiss Army Knives of speech. They can express surprise, skepticism, amusement, grief, joy. They can be used to tickle, shock, fluster, titillate, or put at ease.

Mostly, of course, we swear when we are pissed off. We swear to show contempt -- to hurt or humiliate. When George W. called a reporter "a major-league asshole" recently, he knew these words out-sneered "This guy's a major-league ninny." And when we're truly mad, when we really want to pack a punch, we pull out the big guns. We go for the C-word.

But swearing isn't always used for effect. A good "Shit!" can abate the pain of a stubbed toe, whether anyone's listening or not. Indeed, more than any other form of speech, swear words have power in and of themselves. There are many more people these days who chant "shit-shit-shit-shit" than "Hail Mary, full of grace." Dirty words are the true modern-day mantra.

This, I think, goes to the heart of Nelly's power to appall.

It's not so much that she swore, nor that she swore so often, nor even that she swore so often in front of her own kids. What made Nelly so dreadful was the way she swore. She bandied swear words about with happy abandon. She used the C-word as if it were "candy," or "clown," or "cauliflower." In doing so, she divested the word of its power. She took something profane and made it innocuous -- a kind of anti-blasphemy. She had no respect for profanity. That was her transgression.

If Nelly had any lasting effect on me, it's an aversion to the C-word. But I don't actively think about her anymore. Don't really want to. The other day, though, I was reminded of my kooky, potty-mouthed great-aunt. I was driving and a car cut me off. Worse, the driver extended an arm out the window and prodded the air with his middle finger. My response felt perfectly appropriate under the circumstances. It just felt right: "Cunt!"

Chris Wright can be reached at cwright@phx.com.