Wednesday, August 8, 2007

****s (Four-Letter Words)

Another taboo that D. H. Lawrence challenged in "Lady Chatterley's Lover" was, of course, the use of those four-letter words. They were still able to cause shock waves in society when they led to the frequent arrests and indictments of the comedian Lenny Bruce in the 1950s and 1960s. His famous outloud public listing of them in defiance of his persecutors might mark the moment of their liberation from the constraints that had persisted in conventionally banning them from public discourse.

Today they are as common as pebbles on the beach. You overhear them used in causal conversations in cafes and restaurants. You hear them liberally uttered in movies and on television--at least on channels freed from the controls of those government censors, who still seek to protect the young and innocent from words they hear every day on the streets and in their schools. For the same reason, I suppose, you do not read them in newspapers. The New York Times still boasts that it provides all the news that's fit to print--presumably in appropriately fit language. The family values folks are still that powerful.

But the real news is quite different: words, friends, have escaped their caged and run amok in our society. No matter how we try to put them back, there are too many of them for us to control.

The four-letter words are the names of body parts and body functions. They are good solid words with noble histories. Fuck, piss, shit, cock, cunt... I'm forgetting a couple here, I know. Lawrence, I think, wanted simply to recognize them honestly as words, and rehabilitate them from the bleak, moralistic dungeon into which they had been thrown by those seeking to denigrate the human body and its natural acts as shame- and sinful. Along with the natural beauty and joy of the body we are given to inhabit, he wanted to restore words to their original authenticity and power.

There are, certainly, those who continue to dishonor words by their misuse and abuse. The sad part is that we unconsciously perpetuate precisely that secret shame that Lawrence wanted to unmask by using these noble words in contexts that are disconnected from their meaning. I myself am guilty of those expletives. When I say, casually, Oh, shit! I am not referring to the function that depletes my body of unneeded waste. When I explode, as I am known to do, in traffic, and call someone a "fucking idiot," I am not evoking his skills between the sheets.

And then there are the derivatives--the -mothers and the -suckers--whose common use has different implications. Some might suggest that it has deep undertones of a homophobia and an Oedipal neurosis that say much about our society.

The Buddhist teaching of "Right Speech" is a useful guidepost here. I'm for honest language, language freed from artificial restraints--but also for the use of language that does not egregiously harm or hurt. I have been thinking recently, in this context, of writing about those racial epithets that arouse such controversy... but that's for another entry. As a lover of language, I embrace words in all their manifestations and all their multiple meanings. Expletives have their place, especially when they help us to let off steam. But I do prefer the intentional and conscious use of language over the casual, imprecise variety. I prefer, in the immortal words of Dr. Seuss, to "say what I mean and mean what I say."


dp said...

Peter, I think even the Buddha would use his share of expletives if he were stuck in traffic on the 405.

lindsey said...

Wow! The Buddha Diaries have become quite scandalous in subject matter lately! I like it...

I enjoyed your last entry. While sexuality can be harmful, it can also be a strong force that binds individuals together- a way of connecting. Moderation and mindfulness are always the key.

My feelings on sexuality, however, are quite different from my feelings on profanity. Profanity is never a positive thing. While it might be a means of expression, the feelings the words conjure up and the intentions behind them are never good.

I would argue that even more harmful than the damage done to the person our words are directed at is the damage we do to ourselves. We plant seeds of anger and hate in our minds with those words instead of peace and calm.

But damn it if I don't love those fricatives...

Mikael said...

It reminds me of something Jesus the Annointed said.

"Don't you understand yet?" Jesus asked them. "Don't you see? Everything that enters the mouth goes into the stomach. Then it goes out of the body. But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart. Those are the things that make you 'unclean.' Evil thoughts come out of the heart. So do murder, adultery, and other sexual sins. And so do stealing, false witness, and telling lies about others. Those are the things that make you 'unclean.' But eating without washing your hands does not make you 'unclean.' "

Thanks for blog.


robin andrea said...

I believe the seven deadly words are fuck, shit, piss, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tit. Language is all about context and power. I guess in some ways that refers back to your previous post, which makes language like sex.

When we drive we curse up a veritable storm. I agree with dp, and think the Buddha would find freeway cursing a zen right of way.

Paul said...


I enjoyed reading your thoughtful discourse on language. I agree, it's only words, and the words you speak of are everywhere.

I can imagine, too, that some would consider the common use of vulgarities a sign of (secular) enlightenment.

But context matters, appropriateness matters. What's appropriate in one setting may not be appropriate in another.

I think what's appropriate changes a great deal where Right Speech is concerned. Among other things, Right Speech is harmonious and pleasant. The words of this topic are rarely so.

PeterAtLarge said...

Paul, I read with interest your piece on "How I came to Buddhism." I was also in a bookshop, and picked up a book almost at random: Pema Chodron's "When Things Fall Apart." Not quite at random, because things were actually falling apart in my life at the time. But it was this book that opened the door to meditation for me. Thanks for the comment. Blessings, PaL