John Horne is a new contributor to Mr. Horne’s Book of Secrets. He has a Ph.D in marine biology from James Cook University and writes a variety of genres.
You hear it all the time.
Any show that targets Young Adult or Middle Grade audiences, with any violence in it, will feature somebody saying something like this:
Why is saying the name of the spell (and with such feeling) important?
Here is another example:
Why is it necessary for him to say that?
And lastly, in Japanese anime, characters are always intoning the titles of punches, kicks, and energy blasts.
No matter where you turn, in any kid’s show, the characters always call out the names of their attacks as they do them. Why is this?
Some say, “Because it’s cool!”, “It makes things more awesome.”, “People have come to expect it.”
Others say that it emotionally involves the viewer, helps them understand what it happening, and adds to the performance.
Yet others claim that it helps channel energy, and that by shouting something it firms your resolve and intimidates your opponent. This concept does exist outside of shows, in martial arts. In Japanese martial arts they even have a word for it, “kiai.”
I have a different word for it:
That’s right, swearing.
Allow me to explain.
When talking about words, it should be pointed out that there are two different kinds:
- Words that are modes of thought. Some linguists call this constative language. That is, what you are saying is either true of false. “I went to the store, today.”–TRUE. “I own a Ferrari.”–FALSE. Such words make up the majority of most spoken languages and are used to convey information, or misinformation.
- Words that are modes of action, or performative language. Such words make up only a small fraction of your daily speech, but they do exist. For example, if you were to say, “I apologize,” that is a performative statement––in the very act of saying so, you are apologizing. Another performative statement is to make an oath, or vow. On your wedding day you say, “I do,” and the action of those words is immediate.
All oaths, curses, and swear words are performative, rather than constative. They are modes of action, rather than thought. But what is the action that results from swearing?
Ever see someone reel from being sworn at? I have. I’ve seen people wince at an expletive. I’ve seen them back away from a verbal attack, as if from the heat of fire. I’ve even seen them raise their hands to protect themselves from… from what? From mere words? Hardly.
Unlike most performative speech, swear words are more than just handles on actions. A swear word can provoke an emotional, or even a physical, response in its intended target. When delivered well, a swear word can make somebody turn red in the face, scream, cry, flee, throw the first punch, etc.
Swear words are sticks to beat people with. They are knives to cut people with. Swear words are used to attack an opponent, and gain an advantage over them. And for this reason there is a clear link between swearing and violence.
If you believe that words have power, then you must admit that swear words have a lot of power. Swear words are magic words… not unlike “stupefy.”
Swear words can cause an action within the swearer as well. You’ve probably noticed that people often swear when they are stressed, or hurt themselves, or are angry. This is because the powerful emotions attached to swear words can provide much needed catharsis in a moment of anguish. This release can be summoned immediately, or delayed until the swearer is alone, so they can cuss in privacy.
And so we see that swear words are words that manipulate feelings, in a way that is more instant and direct than other words. Their use need not always be hostile. For example, if the words, “I love you” just aren’t getting the point across, you might try, “I love you so damn much.”
The tone in which the words are spoken is important. Much of the meaning of the word is bundled with the delivery. You will recognize that there is a big difference between the quiet, “damn it” and the roaring “DAMN IT!” In both cases the words are the same but the tone makes their substance unique.
But while the tone is specific, the words themselves are wonderfully subjective and sometimes interchangeable. A swear word to one person might not be a swear word to another, which is why kids’ shows can be full of swearing, so long as the swear words belong to a realm of fiction.
The make-believe incantations of the Harry Potter world may seem amusing to us, but imagine if the word “stupefy” actually had the magical properties it does in the movies (wand or no wand). Such a word would be disapproved of in society. The very mention of it would probably upset people. And the use of it would be considered subversive.
In other words, it would be a swear word.
Also, if magic wands were real, pointing one at another person would be socially unacceptable. It would be non-verbal swearing. Similar forms of non-verbal swearing can be seen in cultures that have a so-called a “death point,” where someone points a stick or bone at another person, and by so doing curses them to die. Another example is pointing a sword, or a gun, at somebody, which can be taken as an oath by the pointer, who duly promises to kill the pointee, unless some condition is met.
No, the word “stupefy” is NOT a swear word to us, but to people like Ron Weasley, Rubeus Hagred, and Albus Dumbledore it would be a strong word with the power to hurt somebody.
And if the Incredible Hulk were real, the words “Hulk Smash” would not be funny.
And if any of the various Japanese anime worlds were real, shouting the name of a powerful fighting technique at somebody would not be taken lightly.
And one final point:
At Hogwarts they actually teach their strong words to school-age children, because even though these words are dangerous, they are part of the magical vocabulary and can be useful.
What if we also taught the proper use of our most potent words to people, instead of just insisting they not use them?
Do swear words have a legitimate use? Something more substantive than: “Because it’s cool!”, “It makes things more awesome.”, “People have come to expect it.”?
I believe that there is a place for swearing, if not in civilized society, then certainly in fiction. But these words should not be abused, and their power must be understood, and respected.