Swearing, Cursing, and Lying to Librarians

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August 13, 2017 by libroshombre


You might not be surprised to learn that the famed Bodleian Library at Oxford University has a Twitter feed – lots of libraries have them – but it was news to me, not being the twittering type. Nonetheless, through this contrivance I encountered a list of library rules “from a 1930 edition of the Nottingham Post, despite referring specifically to Hertfordshire and the Hyde Institute Library in Barnet Vale, which are a full two hours drive from Nottingham.” Judging from their rules, librarians at the HHIL must have had some interesting encounters with patrons. Some of the “Must Nots” are also forbidden in our own public library, such as “Leave business cards behind” (that’s solicitation), “Kick or damage the furniture,” “Enter when they are in an inebriated condition,” eating and sleeping and so on.

But what events led to the creation of rules against crossing the library’s doors “if they have smallpox,” “if their faces are offensively dirty,” and if they’ve been “telling lies to the librarian.”Regular readers of this column might be pleased to see there’s no mention in 1930 or 2017 lists about cussing in the library since profanity’s pretty objective, and public libraries are all about intellectual freedom and expression.

Besides, “The Case for Cursing,” yet another recent article noted the many benefits springing from saying forbidden words. After pointing out the traditional view that profanity’s “inappropriate, betrays a limited vocabulary, or is somehow low class,” NYTimes.com author Kristin Wong said, “profanity serves a physiological, emotional, and social purpose – and it’s effective only if it’s inappropriate. It’s true – research has revealed that cursing makes you stronger and more relaxed, along with other virtues, but it requires uttering socially taboo terms and phrases. This is “the profanity paradox,” she wrote, quoting sleep author Benjamin Bergen, “The paradox is that it’s that very act of suppression of the language that creates those same taboos for the next generation.”

Cursing and swearing aren’t quite the same. As Wong pointed out, “there’s a subtle difference in their origins. A curse implies damning or punishing someone, while a swear word suggests blasphemy – invoking a deity to empower your words.” However, both are classed as profanity: “vulgar, socially unacceptable language you don’t use in polite conversation.” But, hey – it’s just harmless locker room talk, right?

Rough language occasionally cropped up in some of the many locker rooms I inhabited growing up, but not much andseldom of a sexual nature. Perhaps that’s a reflection upon the mores of the place and times. Heck, saying “golly,” “gee,” and even “heck” were spanking offenses in my public elementary experience since they were mere euphemisms for naughtier words.

For the record, the noun “curse” comes from the Old English word “curs: a prayer that evil or harm befall one,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Interestingly, “no similar word exists in Germanic, Romance, or Celtic.” The verb “curse” is from another 13th century Old English word, “cursian: to swear profanely.”

Today’s White House staff know about that, judging from the meteor-like appearance of Communications Director Tony Scaramucci, who took public profanity to a new level. Scaramucci is one spelling of “Scaramouche,” described by Wikipedia as a “stock character of the Italian theatrical form known as the commedia dell’arte … an unscrupulous and unreliable servant. His affinity for intrigue often landed him in difficult situations, yet he always managed to extricate himself, usually leaving an innocent bystander as his victim.”

Maybe Mr. Scaramucci is merely a product of our times since Martin Scorsese’s new movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” uses the F-word 506 times. When, in gentler times, Rhett Butler said, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” it was a shocker. So in an on-going quest to enliven the local conversation, here are some socially acceptable swear words that will have the desired effect if you really mean it and utter them vehemently. “Well, helicopter,” “dagnabbit,” “Merlin’s pants,” “egad,” “I don’t give a Donald Duck,” “son of a bucket,” and “shut the front door.” Or shout “William Shatner,” “shitake mushrooms, “kitty whiskers,” or “aw, duckwater” with enough force, and they’ll get the point.

But remember: wash your face, and don’t lie!

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