Guest column: Making the case for judicious profanity

By R. Barry Cronin

While all profanity is wrong and never acceptable, perhaps there are those extremely rare situations in which, while still inappropriate, its use may be at the very least understandable.

Consider this: There are basically two kinds of profanity. One we can call “gratuitous.” Gratuitous profanity is just that. It is freely given, and consequently, has no value. In other words, it’s worthless. It’s crude, base and ugly. Gratuitous profanity is the kind we encounter every single day — on the streets, on TV, in the movies, and in the printed word. It is ignorant and offensive. It is also totally unnecessary. The English language has so many other wonderful alternatives.

“Judicious” profanity, on the other hand, is significantly different. For one thing, it is very rare and may only be employed when no other words seem to fit. In fact, it is the only time I can think of when profanity could actually be considered forgivable. I was driving to work at Camp Pendleton one pre-dawn morning three years ago in my beloved 1999 Ford Mustang, rolling through the back roads of Bonsall without a care in the world. Suddenly, without warning, an out-of-control BMW comes flying around the corner, straight at me! Ka-blam!! Head on! Both cars totaled, reduced in the blink of an eye to two, twisted, smoking wrecks on the side of a little country road in the middle of nowhere. Terrified my car was about to catch fire, I frantically kick at the caved-in door with all of my might, eventually forcing it open enough to where I can roll out onto the ground. It is at this very moment in time that an expensive, high-end SUV rolls to a stop in the road, directly in front of me. I stagger to my feet and face my savior. The other driver is still inside his destroyed automobile, fate unknown. Thank God — help is here! The window rolls down and a matronly woman’s face appears. Never in a million years could I ever have guessed what this good Samaritan was about to say. Nothing about calling 911, are you OK, have you been hurt? None of that. She leans out and with a hideous sneer on her patrician face that I will never forget, she cackles triumphantly. “Ha! That’s what you get for racing!”

To say I was nonplussed would be a grave injustice to the English language. I was completely stunned, but only for a moment. In an instantaneous rage, I roared out in fury. Four words only. The first two comprised my introductory statement. “Hey lady!” The fourth was the second person pronoun. The third word was the big one, the bomb, the queen mother of all dirty words. She was totally unfazed. From her lofty perch, safely ensconced within her comfortable and expensive chariot, her majesty smugly surveyed the smoking scene of destruction and human misery one last time, harrumphed dismissively, and calmly drove away. Surely the milk of human kindness did not flow freely through this woman’s veins.

Was I right to say those words? No. Profanity is always wrong. Do I regret saying them? Not really. In truth, I am not sure what else could have been said.

That is my own case study in what I would consider the use of “judicious” profanity. Can you see the difference between the two? The point is simply this, unless one can tell a story like that, then all those foul and terrible words we seem to hear (and use) all the time should probably never, ever pass our lips. Everything else is just gratuitous.

Cronin, a Poway resident, is deputy chief of police at MCAS Miramar.

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Posted by Staff on Feb 27 2013. Filed under Editorial, Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

14 Comments for “Guest column: Making the case for judicious profanity”

  1. Amy Roost

    As my son's would say "Cool story, bro!" (meaning just the opposite). No profanity, yet an insult all the same.

    Words are merely letters strung together. Whether they insult is determined by the value we (the receiver) assigns to them.

    Your argument is curious in that you seem to feel justified in having using profanity with the woman on the base, going so far as to call it judicious. However, Merriam Webster defines judicious as" having, exercising, or characterized by sound judgment : discreet". Synonyms include wise, sensible, reasonable, prudent , sane, none of which really apply here. I might have said the same thing had I been in your shoes, however, your words were hardly judicious. They were reflexive, inflammatory (women could have pulled a gun on you), and indiscreet.

    You'll probably scoff, but there's a hilarious South Park episode called "The F Word" that is an intelligent treatment of this topic.

    The episode advocates a philosophy that language is malleable and ever-changing, and that the idea of taboo words are only assigned their stigma because society allows them to become so.The word "fag" is used casually and extremely frequently by the characters throughout the episode, and Comedy Central agreed not to censor the word. The episode as an attempt to reclaim and disempower the word, so it will no longer be offensive to the gay community.

    As I see it, the words other people use is a statement about who they are and the values they hold, and not something I need to take personally. In other words, as our mamas used to say "sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me."

  2. Tom Yarnall

    Amy, I can't believe you went through an intellectual tirade to refute Mr Cronin's analysis.
    The fact is he had an uncontrollable reaction to a dim wit. Many have similar reactions from time to time. They are usually under the breath, but at times they just spew out.
    His was a reaction and not reflexive of anything except the human genome. You may say "dim witted statements triggers reflexive profanity"
    Why complicate it?
    As my daddy used to say "When you lower yourself to every fight, you are already the loser"
    I know, I didn't follow daddy's advice, so no need to say it. :))

  3. Dim Wit

    Tom, is this really how your'e going to spend your retirement. I bet you can't wait till the first cup of coffee is brewed before you fire up the old Mac. Boredom has a cure, it's called
    And Tom, why do you insist on making yourself look silly by going up against Amy? It's clear your outclassed.

  4. R. Barry Cronin

    Ms. Roost, Thank you for the very interesting critque of my article. I sincerely appreciate your taking the time to do so. Now if you please, a response. I do fully understand the meaning of the word judicious and chose it specifically. But it appears you have missed the point of the story. Once again. A lifetime of accident-free driving, obliterated in a flash by a imbecile with a driver’s license attempting to text and drive at the same time. Bad enough, I immediately find myself being hectored by a cruel old harpy on the joys of street racing! Alone, hurt, frightened, helpless, it was the total unfairness, the injustice of it all. Do you remember the movie Network, the anchor who suddenly explodes in impotent rage “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore?” It was kind of like that guy. Only in that kind of insane scenario could those otherwise fiercesome words be possibly construed as “reasonable.” In retrospect, I selected the word as a sophisticated and clever little literary device, but I guess that nuance was lost, on one reader at least. Gomen nasai. I’ll be clearer next time. I’m afraid I’ll have to demure with respect to the show South Park. I’ve never seen it and from what you’ve described, I’m not sure I’d like it. It just doesn’t sound like my kind of humor. Finally to the heart of the matter, “malleable” language, particularly profanity. On that position, dear woman, we could not disagree more. I will assume you are a disciple of the school of relativism, the fastest growing religion on the planet (more’s the pity). I myself am not. In my world view, offensive language is not “in the eye of the beholder.” There are absolutes of right and wrong, to include filthy language, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I could go on and on about the toxicity of relativism, but perhaps I’ll just save that for a future missive. Thanks again, Ms. Roost and do keep up the great work. I really enjoy reading your excellent editorials. Ciao!

    • Amy Roost

      Peter Finch's "I'm as mad as hell…" is one of my all time movie lines. And I do empathize with the circumstances you described. I probably would have said worse.

      As far as the malleable language issue, fag used to mean a bundle of sticks. Then a cigarette. Now it's a derogatory term for someone who is a homosexual. It's not that I'm relativistic as much as I recognize that meanings change, and the reason they change is because we assign a particular value to a string of letters. Sometimes that value changes. We can take the charge out of obscenities (which aren't going anywhere) by recognizing this. Sounds like the Ice Queen in the SUV has already learned this trick. Now she needs to move on and learn a little compassion.

      • R. Barry Cronin

        Ms. Roost,

        Points all well taken and I do understand what you’re driving at with respect to “de-fuzing” some imflamatory words. I can see the logic of it. Not all words, mind you. I still maintain there are many bad words that should never be dilluted. Thanks again. Enjoyable exchange. And as far as the Ice Queen goes, I guess I really should thank her! She’s given me the opportunity to tell a really “cool story!”

    • Terry Daniels

      "Profanity is always wrong. Do I regret saying them? Not really. In truth, I am not sure what else could have been said." You could have said nothing. Christ, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, etc. would likely have said nothing. Certainly me, and most of the rest of us, would likely have screamed that very obscenity too. As you asserted, it's still wrong. I think you really do regret doing what you know is wrong. I think you really do regret losing control. We all regret losing control – every time. Yes, that was a very unusual, tremendously challenging, and totally surprising set of circumstances that came upon you. Who could have foreseen anyone doing to you what that woman did to you in your situation?

      Now you have a fairly indelible memory of it and your reaction to it. That should last you quite a while. The question is: If something like that happens to you again will you react the same way again because you now have rehearsed a pretty good rationalization for an exception to your profanity standard – or will you quickly recall your experience here, check yourself, say nothing, and not let anything cause you to violate your standard again. I believe you'll do the latter. I hope I remember your experience when such a thing happens to me. I hope I can hold my tongue.

      • Tom Yarnall

        Terry, you make some good points, but I am not sure remembering a bad experience is enough to control one's reactive profanity.
        For example:
        "An hour late, oh give me a f**king break." –Joe Biden, caught on a live mic speaking to a former Senate colleague after arriving on Amtrak at Union Station in Washington, D.C., March 13, 2009
        "This is a big f**king deal!" –Joe Biden, caught on an open mic congratulating President Barack Obama during the health care signing ceremony, Washington, D.C., March 23, 2010
        Many of us are just not curable. Too many times our thoughts are directly coupled to our vocal cords.

      • R. Barry Cronin


        Thanks for the wonderful reminder. Ultimately, you are right, of course. I could have said nothing. I should have said nothing. That would have been the more noble course of action, the right and moral thing to do. Sometimes we just fail. We should all strive to try and remember your sagacious advice. Thanks again.

  5. Mark Schaeffer

    I am glad you are OK.

    Recently I was in a badly lit parking structure. Teens and eighty-somethings zipping around blind corners. I beeped when backing out of spaces to alert those who can't see me.

    Like you, I have to deal with some lout growls "All you have to do is OPEN YOUR EYES." No, navigating these accident traps is an EYES and EARS affair.

  6. Tom Yarnall

    These discussions were sparked by the reactive use of the F.U. phrase. This phrase, and it's many derivatives, is immutable and it's message never changes no matter what values you assign to the applicable string of letters.The charge will never be taken out of it's use. It is not bounded by intellect, philosophy or political correctness. It is ,and will always be, enduring.
    B.S. is, also, an enduring term.

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