Cussing: The Junior High School Strategy Of Attention-Getting

The F bomb still gets attention. Cee Lo Green’s latest hit – a terrific tune – hit You Tube months ago. There were under 250 views when I first saw it thanks to a Tweet sent by @cc_chapman. The video has since been removed by YouTube, but when I looked last it had well over 5 million views.

The tune is among the catchiest tunes released in a very long time. And I think Cee Lo is a terrific talent. The clean version of the song replaces the F word with “forget.” We now hear it in every sporting event in America. The song single-handedly landed Cee Lo on the new TV show, The Voice.

“(Bleep) My Dad Says” began as a Twitter feed that drew lots of attention for the crude and funny things supposedly said by the account holder’s aging father. As an aging father myself, I could see the humor in many of the things uttered by Dad. Profanity drew even more attention and garnered lots of re-Tweets. The attention grew and morphed into a TV series featuring William Shatner.

The blogosphere is full of headlines that contain cuss words. For good reason. They catch attention. They draw readers. In short, cussing works.

My question is, “Why?”

I heard my first cuss word when I was in elementary school. I’m guessing. I honestly don’t remember. I didn’t hear it at home. I know that much. Maybe  I had a disadvantaged youth, but my parents, our friends and those people close to my family simply didn’t curse. It wasn’t part of my environment. Somehow I never felt slighted or left out.

By the time I got to high school I began to make some money working in sales. Retail sales in a hi-fi store. I quickly realized that the other young men working around me were now at a disadvantage if they had begun a habit of regular cussing. They constantly had to filter their language as they greeted and engaged in dialogue with shoppers. I didn’t have that problem. At the time – the 1970’s – politeness, kindness and civility were more the norm than not. We said “please” and “thank you.” I called my friends parents “sir” or “ma’am” – not Bob or Betty.

Years before I began selling stuff to the public I went through junior high. Junior high in the early 70’s consisted of three memorable things: hot pants, fist fights and cussing. Girls began to dress in ways I’d never noticed before. Hot pants became all the rage in 1971. James Brown had a song about them. Southwest Airlines flight attendants – we called them stewardesses at the time – wore them. So did the girls at Ridgewood Junior High. They were hardly the stuff of modesty, but I was neither blind nor dead and they made junior high quite difficult for classroom concentration.

Fist fights were fairly commonplace before and after school in junior high. I’m sure those hot pants fueled the testosterone levels, which amped up the anger and frustration. I didn’t know that then, I just thought it was a bit crazy to see two guys – sometimes two girls – go at one another. Some were nothing more than circling each other with few swings, and still fewer landed blows. But other times they were bloody affairs resulting in a broken nose, a blackened eye and gruesome sounds of fist against face.

Then, there was the real cool grown up activity of cussing. Other than smoking, nothing spoke of adulthood like cussing. You were all grown up if you were fluent in cussing. When I was in 7th grade some boys were throwing around two terms that a teacher – in class – overheard. The terms were “bastard” and “bitch.” High usage junior high terms at the time. She stopped class to explain these terms. These boys – like most kids my age – were using these terms to deride guys and girls, respectively. If a guy was a jerk, they called him a “bastard.” If it was a girl, she was a “bitch.”

The teacher explained to us that a “bastard” could be either a boy or a girl. If a child had a mother, but no father – by marriage – then that child was a “bastard,” a child born outside of marriage. Keep in mind, this was in the early 70’s and such things weren’t very common. See how far we’ve advanced as a society?

I was brought up in a church going family. I’m currently very involved in my church. God is THE priority of life. You may not agree with that. That’s okay. It’s my life and my conviction. It’s my faith and it trumps everything. I grew up knowing the Bible. And I was familiar with Hebrews 12:8, “But if ye are without chastening, whereof all have been made partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.” I knew, because adults had explained it to me already, that in this Biblical sense “bastards” meant “illegitimate.” And that’s exactly what the teacher was explaining to us in class that day. The cussing boys were shocked to learn that a girl could be considered “bastard.” They just knew the teacher didn’t have that right.

Her lesson on these words continued with the word “bitch.” She explained that it technically meant a female dog. I had always had a dog. Sometimes a female dog. We never called our dog by that name. They had names like “Shelley” or “Buttons.” Okay, Buttons was a boy dog. You get my drift.

Well, these guys – and all the rest of us – knew now that our teacher was an idiot. There’s no way that’s what “bitch” meant. That’s not how we all understood it anyway. She regained some of our trust when she continued to point out that it sometimes was used as a verb (oh, boy – in a discussion about cussing and wouldn’t you know an English class breaks out). It meant “complaining.” Junior high kids I knew didn’t use it as a verb. It was always a noun. By the time high school came around that would change, but not now.

From 7th grade to 9th grade the vocabulary of cussers expanded faster than the water balloons we’d fill for Halloween shenanigans. Even then I had been taught that profanity was the only option left to a mind with a limited vocabulary. Of course, I was taught that it wasn’t right and that God cared about our language. I knew the book of James had a lot to say about our duty to God to control our tongue and our speech. Saying “crap” or “shoot” wasn’t exactly endorsed in my house and those were the words that got me in trouble.

By the time I entered 9th grade the graphic nature of the profanity was in full force. It was almost always sexual. It made me tense. We used to call it “dirty” and I admit I was put off by it. It just sounded so awful, disgusting and demeaning. That was exactly the point. It was shocking. I’m sad to report that over time it became less so. We grow acclimated to our environment and what once shocks becomes old hat. Now that I’m 54 it’s safe to assume I’ve heard every vile word known to man. Even the ones that have recently been invented. I’m no longer shocked. Disgusted still, but not often shocked.

So why do people use profanity?

Simple. People think it’s cool. It still has the same impact – particularly on young adults – that it had on my 7th grade social studies class. It shocks. It’s a complete act of showing off. That’s why kids did it in the 7th grade. It’s why grown ups do it, too. Bravado. Cockiness. Look at me! Aren’t I cool?

Those boys who were shocked to learn that a girl could be a “bastard” had no idea. Their disbelief morphed from “she’s full of crap and has no idea what she’s talking about” to “I didn’t know that.” It was a moment of enlightenment for them. For all of us. Of course, being wise beyond my years I already knew these boys were idiots. Limited vocabularies resulting from limited brain power coupled with an extraordinary need to be seen, heard and given attention. The best cussers I knew were among the most active fist fighters, too. I suspected the fights and the talk all stemmed from the same basic desire to be noticed. It worked in 7th grade.

It still works.

I didn’t say I liked it. And I didn’t say these kids were the sharpest knives in the drawer. Or the most interesting kids in the class. Over time they began to serve a very useful purpose for many of the rest of us. They were the people we’d compare ourselves to – with the exclamation, “At least we’re not like that idiot.”

I felt I already had enough obstacles to overcome. I didn’t need to contribute anything else to my own idiocy. From then until now, I continue to tell myself, “Don’t be THAT guy.”

Hip, hip. Hooray!

So I say, insert that cuss word in your headline. Fill your blog posts with cuss words. Show off. Call attention to yourself. Be shocking. It works for Howard Stern. It’s bound to work, albeit at a much lesser level, for you. Cuss up a storm.

And while you’re at it. Knock on your neighbor’s door and flatten his nose when he opens the door.

P.S. Don’t worry about embarrassing yourself. You know how you look back at those junior high or middle school photos and can’t believe you thought that garb you wore was cool? See how ridiculous you looked? Why couldn’t you see it at the time? Because we were all morons then. We didn’t know better. Now, we’ve grown up. Back in the 70’s I wore a white belt – me a million other guys. We thought it was cool. We were wrong. What are you being wrong at today? What will you see more clearly tomorrow…that you don’t see today? It’s likely the same for all of us – our own foolishness and stupidity.

• On December 31, 2007 I wrote this article on my first grand son’s blog, Max. It’s about how men influence boys. Sometimes in ways that are right, but sometimes in ways that are wrong.



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