Kai Ryssdal, the host of “Marketplace” on KPCC, recently had an interesting interview with the current editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, Jess Sheidlower, about how words are used—swear words, in particular, and their uses at the office. This came in response to recently-read e-mails from inside Goldman Sachs that employed some swear words in describing one of their deals, which caused a bit of a scandal (although I don’t know what Goldman Sachs could say right now that would make people very happy with them).
Frankly, this intern is surprised that their use of profanity would cause any kind of a stir. They used what I’d describe as lesser swear words, the type that would make a fourth-grader giggle but wouldn’t even get a reaction from most of the adults I know. Sheidlower seems much more accepting of cursing than The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder’s protagonist, OED editor James Murray, and states that swearing in the workplace varies widely:
In some workplaces, it might be appropriate. It’s what everyone does, it’s part of the atmosphere. In other places, it might be extremely improper, and you can’t make a blanket rule about it, because it really depends on what the situation is.
I’m known for a pretty clean mouth around the office, where swearing often starts around nine in the morning (am I the only one who thought that swearing, like drinking or smoking, was something that should wait until at least afternoon?). It’s never bothered me, though, and if I’ve had any reaction to the occasional bit of colorful language it’s that I’ve thought it marked ours as a fun, casual office where everyone could let their guard down. Sheidlower said that swearing at work can be used to create “a sense of camaraderie,” which I could understand but was loudly argued with in the comments on the interview online. One commenter said that instead of camaraderie, he or she felt swearing was used to build “fear or disrespect among co-workers.” I suppose my reaction is evidence of another commenter’s statement that “cuss words used constantly lose their impact,” as my generation is, I realize, thought of as quite crass; meanwhile, I thought of comments such as “who would want to build camaraderie with someone who is rude?” as being downright grandmotherly. Maybe cursing has lost its edge.
In one scene from The Good Book, James Murray, the first-ever editor of the OED, makes a case that cursing vehemently and often displays a lack of creativity. I tend to believe this is true: lots of songs that I listen to on the radio show an embarrassingly minimal range of vocabulary, yet always manage to work in a wide array of profanity. And last year in French class, I read an article that people from the slums of Paris know around 5,000-10,000 words, rather than the 15,000 that the average better-educated Parisian would know, leading to a decreased ability to express themselves and a higher chance that conversations will be resolved with fists rather than words. Using curse words, then, seems to be an early symptom of the same problem: these words certainly aren’t very descriptive, e.g. Goldman’s inner e-mails don’t really offer suggestions to improve the deal by calling it bleep-y. So if they’re not used to convey much information, as words generally are, their function would seem to exist in the reaction of others, such as either camaraderie or the “fear or disrespect” the commenter described. These harsh words then become actions by being used to elicit a specific reaction or feeling from the listener that is above and beyond the normal spectrum of reactions to language. Mrs. Yarrow, in The Good Book, confronts Murray about his exclusion of curse words from the dictionary, asking him if he is afraid of the words. He replies that words themselves are not to be feared, to which she agrees, saying that it is not the words but what a person wants, as conveyed by these words, that is troubling.
The most interesting part, though, isn’t the capacity of certain words to put a person on edge—it’s the reverse. Motivational speeches, for example, raise the status of certain key phrases so that every time the speaker mentions “the mountain” it conjures something in the audience that encourages similarly to how profanities might intimidate. Whether or not you’re an Obama person, you can likely recognize his mastery at motivating people enormously, while using words they’ve known since the age of eight. Ultimately, what matters most is not the words used but their sequence, the way that they are strung together to mean something, and not just the eloquence of the sentence to express the thought but the eloquence of the thought itself.
It’s an interesting topic, the way that we use words and when a certain one might be considered inappropriate. I recommend going here to read the article, as well as the equally interesting comments that follow, and contributing some thoughts of your own! You can also listen to an archive of the interview at this link.