"I come from an old-fashioned family," Fred Harvey said on a television program the other morning. "We learned young that anyone who swears is a damn fool."
Worse than crass, worse than vulgar, swearing is just plain boring. Words used so often have lost all impact. They're dismally dull.
They persist, probably, because so many of us can't be bothered to enrich our vocabularies with new words to express our feelings. We've fallen into lazy habits. Thoughtlessly we follow the line of least resistance.
There could be another cause -- we don't listen to ourselves. Very often as my absent-minded David turns a deaf ear or my children give me the glazed eye treatment, I lament, "Nobody listens to me!" But once in a while I realize that neither do I listen to me. If I did I'd stop myself in my tracks.
We've all got friends who bore us with their same old stories, same old feelings, same old reactions. It's just possible that they'd bore themselves, too, if they stopped to listen to their own voices.
The solution to such habits is not just to listen to our own mellifluous voices. Better yet, the happy solution can be the beginning of a new hobby -- collecting words. The beauty of such a collection is that it doesn't take up space, it doesn't gather dust, it doesn't require any care. And as it appreciates in size and variety, it appreciates in value.
Some specialists in semantics assure us that as we think in words, the more extensive our vocabulary, the clearer our thinking becomes. Who knows? One thing is sure, though. In bringing up children, the use of new words to describe familiar acts or thoughts is more likely to capture their attention as well as enrich their vocabularies.
"What!You don't know that word? Get the dictionary." There are dictionary games to play, too. As they look up a word, let them find another word on the page. Let them cultivate the habit of springing new words on you.
There are such gorgeous words just yearning to be adopted. Some of them, though, positively refuse to adopt me. I can't count the number of times I had to look up the word "heuristic" before it stuck with me as a teaching method in which the student learns by doing, rather than by listening. I thinkm that's what it means. On the other hand I learned the word "eristic" in a flash, as soon as I thought of my eristic children who are forever argumentative.
"I demand pandemonium!" My husband David used to slam a book down on the desk in his noisy classroom. Even after the students learned the word, they loved the idea. They loved his techniques of finding opposites, synonyms, colorful descriptive words. It was the rare graduate from one of his classes who hadn't learned that language can be fun.
They learned how to swear, too -- long, explosive words all sound and fury but signifying nothing like profanity.
"You pusillanimous nonentity! I'll deracinate you! I'll defenestrate you." Who could object to such threats? Who could remember them?
Take the word "abulia," an especially good word to remember. It means the inability to make decisions. What a perfect out it provides us when we're being pressured. "Sorry, I can't. I've got an attack of abulia."
Or enjoy the word "anomie," the collapse of the social structure governing a given society. "Any more of this anomie," a mother might tell her children grimly, "and I'll turn you all into pococurantes" [unconcerned, indifferent persons.] That ought to stop the darlings in their tracks.
The next time hammer hits thumb in a world of woe, just think how dramatic, how delightfully original and fresh we can make our expletives!