Think About It: Word play or punish

I love words. I’ve written about my love for words in this column. I claim the art of using words is a key ingredient to the art of communication. I can spend a surprising number of hours crafting emails to convey a point of view or understanding of another.

Sadly, I fail more than I like to admit. A very good friend once chastised me about getting stuck in semantics.

My friend was right; I learned to let go a bit and understand that words don’t hold the same importance to everyone and should only be challenged when meaning unfairly damages another or influences a critical outcome.

How many times have we been in discussions in which misinterpretations on either or both sides have escalated the discussion into angry serious disagreement? Talking with spouse? Talking with teenager?

Oh, that we could realize sooner that we have just spoiled a few hours of our life, not to mention hurting a relationship. It is very human, and we need to cut ourselves some slack. After all, we are the first species who have the benefit of speaking words. We’ve been blazing communication trails for eons to improve our communication and use of words.

It is my understanding of that evolution that causes me to ponder the increased and very public use of expletives, especially in describing someone else. It’s almost as if there is a pent-up demand for bad boy talk.

Bad boy talk

I call chronic use of expletives bad boy talk because I don’t hear swearing as much and as often from women, never have. Sure, women have and do use expletives but not with the same intensity except for yelling at TV screens when the opposition candidate lies or says something stupid or the favorite football team blows it.

Swearing has been shown in a study to relieve stress and pain (Swearing as a response to pain, Stephens R, Atkins J, Kingston A.“ Neuroreport. 2009 Aug 5;20(12):1056-60). It wasn’t clear why but if you, like I, reflexively yell “damn it” or worse after hitting a sensitive nerve we know we get through the initial pain a bit better.

But don’t get too excited about excusing swearing as therapy. Another study concludes “… However, overuse of swearing in everyday situations lessens its effectiveness as a short-term intervention to reduce pain.” (Swearing as a response to pain-effect of daily swearing frequency, Stephens R 1 , Umland C., J Pain. 2011 Dec;12(12): 1274-81. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2011.09.004. Epub 2011 Nov 11”)

I maintain that a woman who chronically swears daily is an exception; whereas a man who chronically swears as a signature of his communication seems to become part of a tribe of like-minded.

For that and to be clear that I think it’s poor form, I will call it bad boy talk. I picked the phrase up from a comment by a wife who excused her husband’s bragging about groping women as “bad boy talk.” Locker room talk is another term which occurred long before women even had locker rooms.

I fully realize that women can become part of swear-minded tribes in support of their mate and what they may be perceive as manly. Most recently, I’ve seen it at rallies for the prominent leader of our country who has taken to swearing in exercising his freedom of speech in describing people. Everyone cheers, everyone – men, women and children.

I am puzzled by the reaction, to hearing other people hurt. At best it’s thoughtless. At worst, intentional. In all it’s never good for women.

Bad boy talk and women

Apart from the commonly used reference for bodily waste, the most common swearing refers to women and sex. Think about it. SOB or son of a female dog shames motherhood. We can all think of examples that have mothers, women and/or sex at the root of the expression.

You get the point and I hope the paragraph made you as uncomfortable reading it as it did me in writing it. I hear nothing kind or humorous in any of those phrases. There is violence behind those words.

Still, I wonder what is being communicated; surely, it’s not just for shock value or the desire to demonstrate political incorrectness, or worse to degrade women. It doesn’t matter that I think it’s crude and boring. Nor do I think my opinion should matter. I’m just trying to understand the attraction.

What is it that brings the tribe together to lock arms and celebrate the demeaning of another person, and the degradation of women? Not the love of words. Not the art of communication.

The rewards I observe in the celebration is the chance to be a bit wicked for a while and the comradery of being part of a group that has the power.

The only other explanation I have, the one that tries to reach behind unkind and mean words, is that some people lack the words that would otherwise inspire. Resorting to words that titillate, shock, intimidate and horrify others is a means to hold power over someone else when one has nothing else.

It’s the same behavior as the person who cannot cite or stand on the merits of his/her own behavior or opinions and sees disgracing the other as their only means of holding power or sway with cheering crowds.

Great men and women find another way. They stand before us articulating the merits of their ideas, findings and solutions and putting forth a vision of a future that includes everyone.

Bertha Cooper spent her career years as a health care organization and program administrator and consultant and is a featured columnist in Sequim Gazette. Cooper has lived in Sequim with her husband for nearly 20 years. Reach her at

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