454. Abundance (IX)
People swear more than they used to—indeed, it is a point of pride in progressive publications to write “fuck”. A recent bestselling book told people to embrace “the subtle art of not giving a fuck”—although the “fuck” was still asterisked out as “f*ck”. Progressives often produce documentaries that respectfully detail the first moment “cunt” was said on the BBC, around 1968. What does this all mean? This language really was taboo, it is hard to trace “fuck’s” etymology because it was only included in dictionaries in 1965—watershed year. For centuries, it was prohibited to use this language and yet now it is—as they say—performatively used in a high-status way.
The word “swear” itself derives from the PIE for “speech”. We “swear by” God, gods, and—infantilely—“my mother’s life” that what we say is true; so there is a notion that speech is sacred—to speak is to swear an oath, to bear witness to reality. So to use “fuck” in a book title or article is to swear allegiance to progressive values.
As it happens, “swear” forms the latter half in “answer”—literally, “an-swear”. “To answer” means to rebut an accusation with an oath. “I say you killed John Tysley on the heath last Monday night, what is your answer to this accusation?” My sworn rebuttal (answer): “It never happened. I was long abed.” At a trivial level, if you stub your toe on the table leg and say, “Christ that hurt,” what you really say is this: “I swear by Christ that hurt.” When you say, “Christ that hurt,” this is your answer, both to the table that “attacked” you and also to anyone who says it did not really hurt. This is why swearing was archaically called “giving a strong oath”.
The reason why swearing in this way is bad is because it is a lie. My mother injured herself the other day and I had to call an ambulance for her; people who are really hurt do not make much noise—usually because they are in shock. People who exaggerate, as with a stubbed toe, need to convince others as to their pain; so they say, “Christ attest that my pain is real. I swear by Christ this hurts.” While stubbed toes do hurt they do not hurt as much as *real* pain, where people usually become silent; so the rationale not to swear is that when you do so you falsely invoke the sacred to convince other people that things as not as they are—you debase the verbal currency.
The progressive use of “fuck” falls into this category because it is used performatively to convince people that progressives are more emotionally upset than they really are: “I just can’t stand this fucking patriarchal white supremacist bullshit anymore—it’s so fucked up, it’s literally destroying my mental health.” Except the people who say this are usually, basically, fine; the people who really suffer do so in silence.
Cursing is different from swearing: it derives from cursus, “a course”—as in “a course of medicine”. “A cursus” was a course of prayers—said four times a year. When you curse someone—when you say, “Fuck you!”—you invoke God or the gods to fuck that person over; it is a literal curse, as in witchcraft. You invoke the four annual prayers to achieve a goal—including excommunication. “A course of prayers” was required to excommunicate someone; so “to curse” someone suggests slinging them out from the community. I think cursing is worse than swearing, it is an attack on someone: it is to invoke God, gods, or spirits to damage someone—whereas “to swear” means to deceive someone as to what is the case and not to immediately wish them harm. Further, it is acceptable to swear in extreme situations where you must convey the gravity of the situation; however, in extreme situations it is usually unnecessary because the gravity is self-evident and needs no verbal attestation.