Monday, August 8, 2011

I swear, it's not the worst you could say

A letter to the NTU valedictorian who used the F-word in her speech
By Rohit Brijnath

DEAR Miss Trinetta Chong,

Good morning and may I gently say that now you have really *&^% done it. A single swear word - uttered I appreciate in youthful excitement - in your valedictorian speech at Nanyang Technological University, and a crisis has arisen.

Mine, not yours.

Apparently, I qualified to write this essay because it is rumoured I swear fluently in four languages - English, Hindi, Bengali and Australian. Please, it's untrue. My mother - famous for her bars of soap - may read this.

Nevertheless, there you are, swearing on YouTube and smiling, watched by thousands; here I am, alone, swearing at my computer. Of course, yours was a public space, mine is private, but, alas, those lines tend to blur these days.

This is no old fogey lecture, just a look at a word that centuries on still provokes debate.

Anyway, should I get overly preachy, I will be slandered as uncool; should I dismiss profanity by quoting Stephen Fry, who said 'It is impossible to imagine going through life without swearing or without enjoying swearing', I will be rightly pilloried for encouraging it. So I must, like the Flying Wallendas, attempt a dangerous high-wire walk.

Not everyone swears, though what the size of this finely restrained tribe is I cannot say. Even those who do, will say - please wait for stern parental voice - 'there is a time and place for everything'.

Indeed. Nevertheless, profanity intrigues many, especially when young. When we meet a travelling Dane or Kenyan, the first words we often like to learn are 'hello' and 'thank you', followed by something rather rude. Weird, isn't it?

Anyway, your minor outburst has required a little soul-searching and much Internet browsing. So, in case you were unaware, the F-word arrived, so notes the Oxford Dictionary of English, in the early 16th century and it has never left. One may insert ear plugs, but one cannot be deaf to it, for it can even be transmitted through sign language.

Its letters have since been rearranged to become a clothing company and its significance has warranted a 93-minute documentary. One might say this word has gone the distance, even in fact into space: Having completed his moonwalk in 1972, and unaware of an open mike, commander John Young, tired of eating citrus fruits, made his complaint rather plain.

Invective, I concede Miss Chong, litters our public landscape like a sort of verbal graffiti. So much for offering you role models. Former United States vice-president Dick Cheney has uttered it and that terrific dame, Helen Mirren, has shared it. At least she had the courtesy to put her hand to her face in smiling dismay.

Comedians toss the word around like confetti, movies use it for emphasis - Martin Scorsese's Mafia-epic Casino reportedly has 398 mentions - and rock stars hurl it with defiance. Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters recently instructed a fighting fan to 'Get the *&^% out of my show'. Presumably, the F-word was the better option to fisticuffs.

Sports stars, viewed as heroic even by adults, use it flagrantly. Or as the ice-hockey player Gordon Howe once explained it: 'American professional athletes are bilingual: They speak English and profanity.' Of course, them we excuse under the guise of 'heat of the moment'.

Not all words stand the passage of time, for language - a lovely, evolving beast - alters subtly every generation. New lingos arrive, and my daughter - like you, I am certain - uses SMS code which I strive to comprehend. LOL, it took me a while to figure out, had no relation to lollipops. Please try not to smirk. But the F-word, for all its casual usage, has not entirely lost its jarring anti-establishment edge nor its strong sense of taboo.

Beyond disgust, profanity offends some - like a writer friend of mine - because it further impoverishes language, manifesting a wider refusal to discover within English, for instance, more beautiful and available synonyms. So invective becomes the lazy option and too many words, once frowned upon, creep into the public discourse.

Now even in Australia - where swearing I had suspected was a fundamental right - Victoria's state government is trying to zip lips with an on-the-spot fine for indecent language. Whereupon author Keith Dunstan wrote: 'What do you do when you hit your thumb with a hammer? What do you say when you serve three double faults in a row?'

The F-word will continue to polarise.

It will remain a vulgarity and provocation to many; it will be viewed as a way to convey anger pithily, contempt pointedly and elation swiftly for others. But its quick death is unlikely, for it is inextricably linked to emotion and rebellion.

I hardly recommend it, Trinetta, but as speech goes, there is more in life that offends me. It rests way below race-baiting, it does not outrage like sexism does, it is not as disturbing as religious hatred. All this can be spoken of in fine language, but elicits a sharper disgust. Personal attacks on television, in blogs, even in letters I receive, are to me far worse than a quickly bleeped-out word.

So here is my last word on the F-word for you. It's a personal, adult choice, but a choice to be exercised smartly, a distinction to be made as to which space is appropriate for it.

And by the way - it isn't what I remember most about your speech. That would be your quoting of Dr Seuss. I swear, I love that old genius.

Good luck,

Rohit Brijnath

[Nice. For all the people who thought it was a big deal, I humbly disagree. She was not expressing anger, or disdain, or sought to offend. It was a sincere exuberant outburst, with no offence intended. None should be taken. And if you are the type to take offence, you should just pretend you didn't hear it.]

No comments: