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Please be warned that this post contains adult language. I am well aware that my warning readers about its content does, kind of, beg the question I am asking. But so does the post itself. This is a mainstream blog and it’s going to include obscenities. How do you talk about whether you can talk about something without mentioning the thing you’re supposed to talk about? Should I just use vague terms like “profanity” or should I rely on phrases like “the f-word.” Alas, this a different problem. Those who are offended by profanity, be warned. One use is about to come up.

It is common knowledge that the song “Fuck You” was nominated for a Grammy (it didn’t win). It’s a great song and a great video, although I warn you that it’s catchy and will stick in your head for hours. A related video has gone viral: a college student doing her final exam in a sign-language class. This too, I think, is worth watching and I shared it on Facebook. Here it is:

Now, I knew that there would be some people who would object to my complimenting the video and one person did indeed post this comment to my link:

“I don’t like it. I was a teacher of the the hearing impaired at U of Mn and I don’t think vulgarity should be part of a class test like this. Especially when it serves no purpose other than shock value.”

I am struck by two aspects of this comment. The first is that the author of the comment seems to suggest that the impropriety is more connected to the teaching of the hearing impaired, although I don’t know that this is what she meant. Should folks with hearing problems not be taught to curse, or should they only curse with other hearing impaired people? Should the young lady in the video not be taught curses even if, one can assume, she has interest in communicating in sign language? Or, do we want her to learn her curses “on the street” and from friends? This is how I learned to curse in German. I did not learn obscenity from a textbook. It was effective.

But really, there is a deeper philosophical question: is it ever acceptable to mainstream obscenity? One might argue that our culture is so comfortable with cursing that it is not only entirely appropriate to use such words in a college classroom, but that it may be a central method for a teacher to “keep it real” and connect with his or her students. On the other hand, cursing is rude and teachers ought to model more formal behavior. Teachers and students are not friends and they are not peers. Perhaps this language is only suitable for those more equal relationships?

I admit that on occasion many college teachers curse in class for shock value. When I want to challenge relativism, I very often use the example of “raping babies” to get students to think about where they stand on ethical issues. This is shock value too. Should I not rely on such techniques? Is it the shock value or is it the cursing?

I’m curious what others think about this. Is obscenity so mainstream now that what the woman in the video is doing ought to be perfectly acceptable, or should she be criticized for being inappropriate? I’d be really curious to hear what she says about her performance now that it’s gotten all this attention.

7 comments on “When is it acceptable to use profanity?

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I don't use profanity out of self respect. If I don't respect my words, I nobody else will either.

    That video is really cute though! It's clear that the whole class was really having fun with it.

  2. Hannah says:

    I was the one who posted about not liking it and I can assure you it had nothing to do with the hearing impaired being less likely to use vulgarity or to them not having access to it than do hearing people. People who use ASL curse and probably learned it just like we all did. I'm sorry if I was unclear. What I meant was that as a class exam, I think many other choices would have been better. It is more about the appropriate “venue” if you will than anything else. If the profanity was part of a necessary context to the interpretation, such as a quote that was part of the message – I would see a point to it. However when it is an assignment such as this – I think she did it purely for shock value. There were better choices she could have made. Maybe I am old fashioned but I wince when I hear people curse. Becoming 'used it' or saying it is so mainstream as to be ok is a cop out. I too try to talk in such a way to connect with my students, and now I work with troubled children in juvenile court. I don't curse and I haven't found it necessary. I also don't talk to them the same way I would to a philosophy professor (lol) I'm actually quite good at talking to kids and connecting with them. Probably because I love kids. I think there is a happy medium between cursing for effect and using polite informal language. We are supposed to be setting a better example for these kids. As a Mom, I wouldn't like it if my kid's teacher used obsenities in order to connect with them. I just don't think her performance was something to applaud.

  3. jaynicks says:

    Word choice depends on content and intent, and a word that OED says has been around since 1528 in print, and perhaps another three hundred years in spoken language perhaps is OK for a student's final exam done with imagination and humour. Some, teachers included, have far more annoying habits, “you know” inserted meaninglessly and “ummmms” while trying to hold attention when they have nothing at all to say.

    It is more intent and context. 'Crosshairs' and 'reload' can be far more objectionable when used with hate, bigotry and willful ignorance; as PJ Harvey says, “Words that maketh murder”

    In this case there was wit and imagination and since it was a student not a teacher, the use of a popular, grammy nominated song — mainstream — in a final exam was edgy but appropriate, One would have to be dour to not call it fun. As Genevieve Koski says in the Onion, “It’s hard to make Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You” even more gleefully fun than it already is, but this woman’s American Sign Language performance of the song manages to bump it up another notch or two up the happiness meter.”

    Happiness is not shock.

    Follow ups

    Is this blog Teaching Thursdays? Regardless, how do you teach Dos Passos, Lawrence, Burroughs, Joyce, among others, without 'fuck'?

    By the way, there is a bowdlerized version of “Fuck You” up at Although I do not sign, it seems to me that the sign she uses is not quite the one for the AM version lyrics where “forget you” seems to have been substituted. I could be wrong.

    Now that several ASL versions of “Fuck You” have gone viral some percent of teenagers are going to have learned some signs. What are parents/teachers going to do when fuck you is signed to them?

    For absurd, gratuitous and boring overuse of the word, see “Good Will Hunting”. This is not that.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I thought the use of the f-word in Good Will Hunting was authentic, and anything but gratuitous. Different strokes…

  5. Anonymous says:

    Just had a long philosophical discussion about this with some fellow teachers. I believe in context. The teacher in Hawaii ( ) used it for shock value, the same reason it is used in the song.

    As a matter of course, I do not believe it should be used in the classroom by either the teacher OR the student. I like the distinction made by Anonymous “anything but gratuitous”. If there is another word which is more constructive, it should be used.

    Saying “your paper is sh*t” not only humiliates the student, perhaps even offends them, but is unnecessary. Teachers are supposed to give constructive methods of improvement, not tear down a student's effort.

    The fact that everyone talks this way today- it's not a fact. “The man” is still a corporate conservative. While he may not personally object, he knows it is dangerous for his business.

    And for teachers- we change the world one student at a time. This student didn't just use the word/sign alone to shock people, she used it in its place as part of an assignment. I would have preferred it be replaced as they have with the AM version and hope that she warned the teacher of her choice of song. I would take points for inappropriate choice, but she did a great job.

  6. lyonyak says:

    New reader, and wanted to bring your attention to a fascinating lecture that discusses “language as a window into human nature,” and focuses quite a bit on profanity:

    And the short version (doesn't mention profanity, but has as much insight into human relationships as you can pack into 10 minutes):

  7. Unknown says:

    I understand that there are often words that can be used in place of “fuck” and “shit,” but sometimes the point IS to use these words. They express emotions such as frustration and anger, and at least for me they often serve to relieve those emotions a bit.

    There just aren't other words that serve that same purpose. I see people try. A few years ago, there was a short clip of some reality show, with Jessica Simpson. Basically, she didn't want to say, “Oh my God,” because it involved “taking the Lord's name in vain.” That's a debate that can be had elsewhere, but she chose to use a substitute, “Oh my gaww.” Not only was it supremely annoying, but it also sort of defeated the purpose. The meaning of the former isn't lost by substituting the latter. She still meant, “Oh, my God.” Everyone's minds filled in the 'd' sound. It was just like when my friends, who didn't want to swear, would use “fudge” for “fuck.” It actually just annoyed me. My reaction was, “We all know what you meant there. We're all thinking of the word you didn't say, and you didn't even get the satisfaction of saying it.”

    In those cases, it isn't the words themselves, but the context and the meaning.

    But, really, what is the meaning of these words? Even if we break down a handful of the infamous “7 Words You Can't Say On TV” that George Carlin collected for us, there are other words that have the same denotation, and are just fine:

    shit = poop / excrement
    piss = urine / pee
    fuck = sex / to have sex with / intercourse
    tits = breasts / boobs
    cock = penis / male genitalia
    cunt = vagina, and was actually used in a pun in Shakespeare's Hamlet

    There were a few more in there. If I use the words on the right, I don't get into trouble. If I use the ones on the left, I get into big trouble. Why?

    Because their connotations are different. They're connotations involve that release of frustration, or that expression of anger. The thing is, I can construct a sentence that avoids all these words, but conveys all the anger/violence/so-called vulgarity without actually using any “swear words.” So, really what's the big deal? Logically, what's the problem?

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