Results Matter, Linguistic Edition: Sarcasm and Swearing

We were rambunctious children. We basically lived outdoors, with a hundred acres of woods behind us, like modern Christopher Robins without the schizophrenia. We hurt ourselves, and each other, a lot. I slammed my sister’s fingers in the door. One sister slipped under a load of firewood and cut her face. My brother was stung in the junk by a wasp. Twice. This is why my dad swore a lot. When we hurt ourselves he got upset, when he got upset he got mad, and when he got mad, he cussed.

One more example. When I was two, I was jumping on my parents bed, and fell off. I mashed my face off my dad’s nightstand, and he jumped up yelling “What the hell happened?!” I stopped crying, climbed up the bed, jumped, and leaped into the nightstand to show him. My mother screamed “STOP ASKING HIM THAT!” A decade later, my little brother repeated this scene almost shot for shot. My poor parents. This is all a long and colorful (the color of blood) way of saying that I don’t find swearing offensive. From an early age it was always an emotional intensifier.

I appreciate other people don’t always see it that way. The two crucial parts of communication are meaning and means, as Stephen Pinker discussed. Sometimes the one overshadows the other. If we want to have effective communication, we need to align meaning and means; the delivery mechanisms should further the goal of the content. Consider this letter Dwayne McDuffie sent his bosses at Marvel Comics to protest the offensive depiction of black super-heroes with “skateboard based super powers”:

Via GammaSquad

In the past year, 25% of all African-American super-heroes appearing in the Marvel Universe possessed skateboard-based super powers. In an attempt to remain on the cutting edge of comics, I hereby propose a new series that will fully exploit this exciting new trend … Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers.

Really, it’s a masterpiece of biting sarcasm. It’s one of the nastiest letters I’ve ever read, but doesn’t contain a single objectionable word*. It’s so vicious because the means, obsequious tone, dark parody, and overwhelming intellectual contempt, are all counterpoised artfully with the message – you’re so lazy that your ignorance is bordering on (or leaping and vaulting into) outright racism. Sarcasm and swearing are very similar, in that the message can often be overshadowed by the delivery. There’s an art to cussing, both in business and in life. Mark Twain was probably the master:

Clemens’s wife, Livy, was one of the few who did not appreciate her husband’s swearing, and he tried to keep watch on his tongue when she was close by; but one day something irritated him, and, thinking his wife could not hear, he launched into a torrent of red-hot profanity.  When he entered his wife’s room a short time later, she coolly repeated word-for-word everything he had said.

“Livy,” he replied, astounded yet amused, “did it sound like that?”

“Of course it did,” she said, “only worse.  I wanted you to hear just how it sounded.”

“Livy, it would pain me to think that when I swear it sounds like that.  You got the words right, Livy, but you don’t know the tune.”

So I’ll continue to occasionally swear and delve into black sarcasm**, but I’m not doing it to be crass. I’m trying to say something in this space, something I hope is worth reading. If I’m good enough, you’ll hear the tune, and not just the words. If not, that is my fault.

Unless any Native American readers take issue with the salutation “Pilgrim”.

** Or try to eloquently combine the two, like Malcolm Tucker’s fantastic performance in In The Loop.

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