On swearing

16 11 2010

Put this in the “bet you didn’t know” file: Trotsky was opposed to swearing

Abusive language and swearing are a legacy of slavery, humiliation, and disrespect for human dignity—one’s own and that of other people. This is particularly the case with swearing in Russia. I should like to hear from our philologists, our linguists and experts in folklore, whether they know of such loose, sticky, and low terms of abuse in any other language than Russian. As far as I know, there is nothing, or nearly nothing, of the kind outside Russia. Russian swearing in “the lower depths” was the result of despair, embitterment and, above all, slavery without hope, without escape. The swearing of the upper classes, on the other hand, the swearing that came out of the throats of the gentry, the authorities, was the outcome of class rule, slaveowner’s pride, unshakable power. Proverbs are supposed to contain the wisdom of the masses—Russian proverbs show besides the ignorant and the superstitious mind of the masses and their slavishness. “Abuse does not stick to the collar,” says an old Russian proverb, not only accepting slavery as a fact, but submitting to the humiliation of it. Two streams of Russian abuse—that of the masters, the officials, the police, replete and fatty, and the other, the hungry, desperate, tormented swearing of the masses—have colored the whole of Russian life with despicable patterns of abusive terms. Such was the legacy the revolution received among others from the past.

He also speaks against imprecision in language:

Language is the instrument of thought. Precision and correctness of speech are indispensable conditions of correct and precise thinking. In our country, the working class has come to power for the first time in history. The working class possesses a rich store of work and life experience and a language based on that experience. But our proletariat has not had sufficient schooling in elementary reading and writing, not to speak of literary education. And this is the reason that the now governing working class, which is in itself and by its social nature a powerful safeguard of the integrity and greatness of the Russian language in the future, does not, nevertheless, stand up now with the necessary energy against the intrusion of needless, corrupt, and sometimes hideous new words and expressions. When people say, “a pair of weeks,” “a pair of months” (instead of several weeks, several months), this is stupid and ugly. Instead of enriching the language it impoverishes it: the word “pair” loses in the process its real meaning (in the sense of “a pair of shoes”). Faulty words and expressions have come into use because of the intrusion of mispronounced foreign words. Proletarian speakers, even those who should know better, say, for instance, “incindent” instead of “incident” or they say “instice instead of “instinct” or “legularly” instead of “regularly. Such misspellings were not infrequent also in the past, before the revolution. But now they seem to acquire a sort of right of citizenship.

If anything, this for me is an indictment of the cultural progressivism of the New Left.


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20 responses

21 11 2010
sortacatholic

Ochlophobist: The advent of so many in the upper middle classes (especially those under 40) swearing like your local mechanic or an army sergeant is a phenomenon I have assumed to be consistent with many other aesthetic features where we see the bourgeoisie mimicking the working classes – a phenomenon which I read as the bourgeoisie desperate to find some image of authenticity. Perhaps I am reading this all wrong.

Perhaps not. Your experiences and observations are not unlike my struggle to maintain my “native” New York accent in academia. In my experience, there’s a centripetal pull towards a very artificial, precise, sharp rhotic, “high” North American English accent in American and Canadian academic circles. It’s hard to keep one’s prole accent when every other word is polysyllabic and your colleagues use “bloody” as a mild and affected expletive. The American profs are straight off of the NPR newscast. The Canadians sound like CBC Radio 2, and the foreign profs fell out of a radio playing the BBC World Service. Damnit, I’m going to sound like Seinfeld rather than one of the Queen’s footmen!

My vocabulary is well developed (so says the College Board, anyway). I’ve made many successful conference presentations but can’t pronounce the ‘r’ following a terminal vowel. A matter of authenticity? Maybe not. I just don’t want to sound like a pedant. I want to be a simple idiot with a PhD in tow.

20 11 2010
walt

Another example of subversive use of language was the Irish immigration in the 18 and 1900’s and the rise of “slang.” Slang is a corruption of an old Gaelic word. Daniel Cassidy’s book “How the Irish Invented Slang:The Secret Language of the Crossroads” explores some of this history. Slang terms were of course not respectable words to be included in dictionaries because at one time being Irish wasn’t so respectable. The book traces some of the vulgar swear terms heard in the US back to their origins in Gaelic.

20 11 2010
FrGregACCA

I wish these comments had a “Like” button. Hear, hear!

19 11 2010
Andrea Elizabeth

I was referring to the reasons in his first paragraph. I don’t object to it because of reasons of social class. I relate to working class people and don’t see swearing as something that belongs to the them. Some swear, some don’t. I see it more of a religious upbringing issue which in my mind knows no economic or class distinction.

19 11 2010
Andrea Elizabeth

Expressing one’s thoughts is such a cathartic (in a cleansing way) experience. Since sharing with y’all the above, I don’t feel the same sensitivity and victimization. I may have been healed, praise the Lord.

I don’t think I’ll be swearing myself, because of all 3 reasons Och lists above (does that make me more complicated than all the people he knows or more wishy washy?), but I will note that my favorite bloggers are not averse to using an occasional expletive. Go figure.

19 11 2010
ochlophobist

Most of the people I have known in my life have been swearers. The vast majority of poor and working class folks I have known swear, as have the majority of non-religious intellectuals I have known. Of those I have known who do not swear I could divide them into three categories – those who don’t swear because they believe that swearing is a violation of divine law (and I have known fundy Prots and Orthodox who hold this view) and then those who oppose it because it makes them feel uncomfortable and it violates their pollyanna fetish for life to resemble a Jane Austen movie, and then those who don’t swear because they didn’t grow up around swearing and were not properly taught to do so.

I grew up in a home where both my parent swore regularly but, because my father was a Baptist pastor, we were taught to be very careful with regard to our swearing. From my teenage years on I could swear around my parents, but only when church folks were not around (other than church folk who were in our inner swearing circle). My mom was a nurse in the Navy and she, well, swears like a sailor, especially if Ohio State is losing. In any event, this inner swearing radar still works in me with exacting precision, around certain people I speak with my church rhetoric, around everyone else, including my kids, I swear fairly ubiquitously.

I completely disagree that near constant swearing is a sign of a lack of intelligence or of intellectual laziness. Sure, it can be, but hell, covering stupid ideas with an intricate and impenetrable rhetoric can also be an occasion of intellectual laziness. Not to mention prudishness, which is the epitome of moral laziness. In the metal shop I spent most of the last decade, the word fuck is used in perhaps 10% of sentences spoken. Some men who speak that work are idiots, others are bright. It is a word which can be used creatively in my opinion, and which can convey a wide array of meaning especially when considering the inflection and posture of the speaker. Its highly repetitive use is what gives the word some of its epistemological and aesthetic richness.

While I have known and loved persons who objected to swearing on a religious basis, I suppose I am at a point in my life where I assume, when I encounter someone who is offended at swearing, that they are engaged in a sort of anachronistic Jane Austen goes to Disneyland bourgeois fantasy moralism. My impression with most people who are disgusted with swearing is that they find it grotesquely common and working class. The advent of so many in the upper middle classes (especially those under 40) swearing like your local mechanic or an army sergeant is a phenomenon I have assumed to be consistent with many other aesthetic features where we see the bourgeoisie mimicking the working classes – a phenomenon which I read as the bourgeoisie desperate to find some image of authenticity. Perhaps I am reading this all wrong.

I do think it perfect that Trotsky held this opinion – I think of Trotsky as the embodiment of a highly intellectualized and pious Marxism. I find Trotsky and his followers fascinating but I don’t know that I could ever sustain the energy and pious fury to live such a life for very long. I have recently been collecting stories from my father regarding his socialist and communist associations in the late 50s – early 70s and I think I am coming to some sense of a tension between a messy, earthy “lived” Marxism as it were and the perpetually idealized and highly abstracted Marxisms. One sees this both within given Marxist groups and also when comparing the various groups. Perhaps I am a freak, but I find the anatomy of the Left in the 20th century endlessly fascinating, and little quirks like Trotsky against swearing are gems. Thanks.

19 11 2010
Leah

I think than even within the last 15 to 20 years that profanity has lost most of its shock value. The b-word wasn’t even used on network TV until Dynasty, and I don’t recall hearing much minor swearing in programs that were produced prior to the 1980s. A lot of people think that profanity “keeps things real” and if you think that it’s a true reflection of life, then it’s no longer subversive. I wouldn’t be surprised if the network television starts resembling HBO and Showtime in terms of language use before the decade is out.

18 11 2010
Jason

I want the contents of my language to be shocking because I’m being putting forth subversive ideas, not because I’m using the commonplace language of the street corner.

The commonplace language of the streetcorner is itself often a subversive idea. It is something outside the control of the authorities. This was especially true back in the 1600s when the nationalistic ideology of the “mother tongue” began to really develop. Having one language was a way to control what people read. Something like rap music in the late 80’s and early 90’s was another example. Many feared it precisely because the rappers weren’t speaking their language. They spoke in their own raw and graphic ways, yet they were speaking to millions of people who understood them. The only way to really control it was to add a sticker to the CDs: “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics.”

18 11 2010
Leah

I want the contents of my language to be shocking because I’m being putting forth subversive ideas, not because I’m using the commonplace language of the street corner.

17 11 2010
Sam Urfer

I try not to swear very often, for the reason that I want it to be meaningful when I do swear. Vulgarity inflation robs words of their useful weight.

17 11 2010
Andrea Elizabeth

The reason I object to shocking language is not so much for wondering why people feel so reliant on shocking people to get their point across, but because I’m a very literal, visual person who believes that private activities, parts and their issuances should remain so. Introducing the words for these things is the same as introducing the actual parts, things, and activities to me. I try to look away and comprehend the intent, but feel violated all the same.

17 11 2010
Dauvit Balfour

I have a friend who absolutely refuses to use vulgar or profane language (I generally try to avoid the profane). He says “that’s just ignorance” whenever someone else does, and gives you the evil eye (figuratively speaking) if you drop the f-bomb around him.

I think it’s ridiculous to assert that coarse language inherently stems from the inability to express oneself in higher ways. It might be laziness, it might be ignorance, or it might be intentional. Those words do still carry weight in some circumstances. When I’m with old friends from college days, the language is a vernacular of laziness (probably). But when I’m arguing the justness of the Iraq war with a Catholic neo-con friend, they tend to stem the tide of argument through shock, which in some cases is desirable (mainly when arguing with a neo-con).

If the purpose of language is to exchange ideas clearly, then there may be occasions when the clear conveyance of an emotion depends upon the force and directness of the language used. At such times, delicate language becomes imprecise and fails to convey the same emotional connotations as more coarse vocabulary.

17 11 2010
Jason

I cringe when I say “on-velope” instead of “en-velope.” It’s like I don’t know where I come from anymore. “On-velope” sounds “classier.”

What is “proper speech”? It’s boring, that’s what it is. I got through George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”…barely. I’m sure it’s a great novel and all…but is Mark Twain not superior just for the very fact that he wrote how people actually speak. And then there is Shakespeare somewhere in the middle. His language is elevated…yet I wouldn’t call it “proper speech.” What is it? I’m not sure, except that it’s beautiful.

Orwell’s translation of Ecclesiastes 9:11, side by side with the original:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

16 11 2010
dominic1962

In my experience, swearing seems to be the result of poor language skills. The “weight” or shock value of formerly severe swear words seems to have been lost when they are used as a linguistic jack-of-all-trades. Certainly we’ve been around the person that uses the f-bomb as a noun, verb, adverb, etc. often all in the same sentence. It is no longer swearing per se. I suppose one could say that the speech patterns that use a handful of old cuss words and phrases borrowed from common text message/chat room parlance is a creole English but its just slop.

Now, as to other “dialects” and such (‘ebonics’ was brought up), I do not care how one chooses to speak with their friends and family and so forth but there is a need to have a coherent “English” (or whatever the standard may be) in order to communicate with others across the board. We should have at least a good working knowledge of proper English and be able to make good use of it.

16 11 2010
FrGregACCA

Re: culture. As Arturo and Kevin imply, it has become clear that capitalism can perhaps resolve all contradictions, those of sex and those of race, ethnicity, religion, etc., save one, and that is the contradiction of class. Orthodox Christianity (virtuall all orthodox Christianity), at least at the moment, stumbles on sex, insisting that patriarchy is part of creation, not post-fall. Capitalism, however, cannot resolve the question of “slave and free”.

16 11 2010
Kevin J Jones

“maybe particularist sectoralism, deconstruction, and other postmodern theories constitute a conspiracy of neoliberal capitalism to disarm the left.”

The CIA indeed funded culturally “left” groups in order to distract elites from Communism and economic-focused leftism. Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine relied on agency funding for their first decade. The agency even funded modern art in order to undermine socialist realist styles of painting.

The Congress for Cultural Freedom fulfilled this mission in Europe. I don’t have a book title handy, but one book in particular has been favorably reviewed in the NYTimes.

While Billy Graham might have been an anti-communist tool, it’s clear cultural leftism was sometimes a pawn too.

16 11 2010
sortacatholic

Arturo: The left has no compelling rival metanarrative precisely because it is too busy defending issues of cultural nationalism.

Yes, but there are also sharp cultural divisions in the Tea Party right that threaten to pull apart the fragile coalition of christianists, the fiscal fringe, bircher-esque types, and the speling disfunkshunl (okay, the last might not be an actual flank. Still, some Tea Partiers need to head back to grammar school.) Many in the Tea Party (and politicians that have ridden their wave into the House) want to project this image of the typical Tea Partier as a flyover gun-loving working class evangelical.

Counterpoint: my mother, a sixty-something upper-middle-class Connecticut yankee matron. She adores Palin but probably would find it difficult to socialize with a fair number of people at a major Tea Party rally. She has no clue about gun culture and even less about lower to middle income Americans and their interests other than some rare encounters through charity and speeding past the trailer park every day. Her only attachment to Palin is Trig and her opposition to abortion. Only recently has she tapped into the Beck psychosis. Eh, at least she has an “ideology” of sorts (sigh)

So yes, many in the Left have tried to (and failed) to engineer multiculturalism and even linguistic conformity. The progressivist cultural project pales in difficulty against the cultural difficulties of the American far right. The Tea Party and other rightist movements must create a culturally coherent bloc out of wildly disparate social groups. Hyper-nationalism and christianism won’t hold any rightist movement if followers can’t identify with one another on a instinctual level. You, I, and the readers of Reditus know the answer: fascism. So odd, then, that the American ultra-right runs from the chimera of “communism” towards the “loving” arms of an equally great evil.

16 11 2010
Arturo Vasquez

I told you people that I am a snob. Proper speech is proper speech.

I think the left is lost in a wasteland of ethnic/sexual/racial sectoralism. I think that is the real reason for the emergence of nativism and the Tea Party in this country. The left has no compelling rival metanarrative precisely because it is too busy defending issues of cultural nationalism. Some very paranoid reactionary people say that Gramscian Marxism has infiltrated society and is the real victory of communism in the West. (The path of Eurocommunism, the “errors of Russia” for the Fatima crowd, etc.) But I think the opposite could also be the case: maybe particularist sectoralism, deconstruction, and other postmodern theories constitute a conspiracy of neoliberal capitalism to disarm the left. There is some sort of dysfunctional cross-pollination going on, and someone is laughing all the way to the bank.

16 11 2010
sortacatholic

Turmarion: or that such progressivism legitimated sloppy language on the grounds of unwillingness to criticize the usage of “oppressed” groups; or both? If this is so, I’d tend to agree there, too, but I’d be interested in a more extended explanation of where you’re coming from there.

I was also puzzled by Arturo’s concluding statement and would like to know more. In the meantime, the latter statement that progressivism overlooks “incorrect” English because of their cultural constructs could be refuted from a progressivist standpoint by more recent linguistic research. The furore over “ebonics”, for example, certainly carries socioeconomic and racist valences. Nevertheless, AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) is not, in my opinion and that of many linguists, “poor English”. AAVE has strong antecedents in the morphologies of West African language families. AAVE verb conjugation, for example, is just as consistent as “standard” American English conjugation. AAVE has its own rich vocabulary that has deeply influenced other American English speakers. Despite the views of some, most black people that speak AAVE with friends and family speak “standard” American English among people of other ethnicities or in other situations. I code-switch when I’m at home in Connecticut (New York dialect) and Canada. I find Canadian English flat and boring. The Canadians I know like to caricature New Yorkers as loud and fast talking. My Canadian friends also mangle the New York Yiddish loanwords (makes me cringe). All people code-switch to some degree or another.

In my opinion, the question of “high” or “low” dialect rests entirely on prejudices and their influence. African-American people have not only been marginalized for their color but also for their culture. White people freely stole what they liked from black culture and in turn denigrated African-American customs and language. For this linguistic progressivist, “the ebonics debate” betrays the common prejudice that only some forms of code-switching or bilingualism are socially acceptable. Ideally, all people should be free to communicate in whatever dialect or language appropriate for their community or social situation. In reality, all languages and dialects bear the burden of politics and prejudice. A refutation of a progressivist view of language and culture would affirm that discrimination between dialects and languages provides a salutary function for a society.

16 11 2010
Turmarion

I’d pretty much agree with most of this. I would say, however, that the swearing, coarseness of language, and profanity of modern America is awfully bad, too. The ascription of this to class oppression, as Trotsky does regarding Russian cussing, would seem not to applicable here. I wonder if the (perceived) class leveling in our society has the same effect. That is, if people believe (wrongly, of course) that class doesn’t exist or is nearly non-existent, they’re not going to see any particular reason for elevated speech. If everyone is as good as anyone else, then the coarsest billingsgate is no worse than the most elegant usage. Thus extreme class consciousness and lack of both seem to have the same linguistic results.

By the way, when you say that the paragraph on lack of precision in language “is an indictment of the cultural progressivism of the New Left,” I take it you mean that sloppy and imprecise thinking led to said cultural progressivism; or that such progressivism legitimated sloppy language on the grounds of unwillingness to criticize the usage of “oppressed” groups; or both? If this is so, I’d tend to agree there, too, but I’d be interested in a more extended explanation of where you’re coming from there.

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