Language is a funny thing – composed of these strange symbols, which allow us to transfer recognizable images from one mind to another. Through our spoken and written words, we are able to communicate complex ideas, instruction and insight, and even pass along our accumulated knowledge from one generation to the next.
In short, words have power. But not all words are created equal; the power spectrum of words runs the gamut, from feeble, mono-dimensional words to the most provocative and profound oratory. The ability to use words to tap into the psyche of others can be a tremendous asset. Choosing the words we speak is very much like a gifted artist selecting the shades and hues with which to create his masterpiece.
Since language provides such a powerful, engaging toolset, it is easy to see why the abuse of these tools can be damaging. Irresponsible use of vocabulary has always been a problem, and will surely continue as long as humans continue speaking. And while they may change over time and over generations, there are certain words that remain taboo. American comedian George Carlin introduced us to seven of them in 1972.
One of these infamous words is “fuck”. It is called “the F-bomb” for a reason; the power it contains, when used effectively, is unparalleled (at least in the English language). Now, don’t misunderstand; I am in no way defending gratuitous swearing. Ill-timed or unnecessary profanity is considered offensive to many, and is rarely useful in civil dialogue. However… there are those rare occasions when dropping an F-bomb can completely reposition what is being said. It can evoke a visceral response in the hearer that is more profound than anything a lesser word might be capable of.
A perfect example of this viscerally appropriate use of the F-bomb can be found in the Noah Gundersen song, “Jesus, Jesus” (2009, track 5). After a verse lamenting the current state of world affairs and expressing his desire to experience life and love, the artist gives us these lines:
It’s such a pretty place we live in,
and I know we fucked it up.
Please be kind.”
I can think of no more evocative way to convey the sentiment behind those words. He’s expressing his deep affection for our world and how the beauty and purity of nature is being slowly strangled by our human selfishness. We haven’t simply “messed up” this “pretty place we live in.” We haven’t “damaged” it, “abused” it, “ruined” it, or even “raped” it. Though that last one comes pretty close.
No. We fucked it up. Royally.
Even the pleading tone of the singer’s voice on the next line, “Please be kind”, seems to be an acknowledgement of our abject unworthiness of that kindness, in light of what we’ve done to the precious gift we call home.
Art has always been capable of manipulating human emotions, and songwriters are perhaps uniquely gifted in this ability. Music can effortlessly bring us to tears, drive us to the brink of rage, or enfold us in meditative peace, depending on the notes that are played and the artist’s choice of words.
Words also have the potential to change minds and hearts on critical political and social issues. Who can overstate the impact of Alexander Hamilton’s essays on the formation of the United States, or the ability of religious leaders to incite positive change in their communities? Who questions the influence of a political candidate’s fiery rhetoric to galvanize their base (or their opposition)? It is precisely because words have such power, that they must be used responsibly. Remember that it was the words of Adolf Hitler, which were used to provoke one of the greatest travesties in human history.
So when is it appropriate to drop an “articulate F-bomb” into a sentence or a song? It really comes down to intentionality. The speaker or vocalist must know the audience they are communicating with, and choose words deliberately to emphasize a specific point or concept. Superfluous use of profanity does little to enhance art or conversation, but the occasional “articulate F-bomb” can evoke an emotional response that would be otherwise unattainable.
In order to be an effective communicator, all options must be left on the table. We should not expect people to tie one hand behind their backs by stigmatizing and excluding certain words from their vocabularies. It is important that we not lose sight of what words actually are. They’re just symbols, after all. Symbols, just as stop signs, corporate logos, and hand-drawn illustrations are symbols. The point is the meaning they convey and how well they convey it, not the particular form being used. Rejecting certain symbols out of hand can impede our ability to communicate. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword, but only if we allow it to be wielded to its maximum potential.
Gundersen, Noah. (2009). Jesus, Jesus. On Saints & Liars [digital]. Seattle, WA: Independent.