Though I try to avoid using them in my writing, I love a good swear word. We could probably have an entire debate about which one works best in a particular situation. The crispness of two consonants hissing off the teeth feels so satisfying. Why are expletives so…off limits?
Expletives of course are words that make a statement- sometimes inappropriate (who decides that?) and often cut from public media because they are dirty, obscene, profanity, or cussing. Again- who dictates what language we should use in particular situations? Sometimes they are used to degrade and dehumanize, so I have to be upfront and say expletives are not always helpful, they can be harmful. But maybe the root of naughty words can help us frame the sh**storm that happened this week and what comes next.
I remember watching a proto-YouTube video once that detailed the history of the “F” word. I was around eleven. The video demonstrated that the F word is one of the most versatile in the English language- it can be a verb, a noun, a gerund, an adjective, and an exclamation, among others. I showed the video to my sister, nine at the time, who giggled as though she had secretly glimpsed a raunchy scene in an R-rated movie. My grandmother came over to see what we were fussing over, so we had no choice but to show her the video. She watched, expressionless. Finally, the video ended, and she looked distraught. “That word does NOT come from German, it comes from Latin!”
Taking a lesson from Grandma Mary, the root of “expletive” comes from the Latin explere, meaning “to fill.” An expletive is a word used to fill a sentence or verse without changing the actual meaning. Think poetry rules. Seemingly, an expletive is an excessive addition to someone’s thought- we don’t need it to understand their point. We do need it to follow the rules of language, maintaining the correct number of syllables and perhaps a stylistic upgrade. So, in a strange sense, expletives might seem like rule-breakers when used to profane or curse, but traditionally, they actually maintain the formula.
The importance of how we understand expletives is actually in how we think about rules in this moment. Last week I met with some religious life professionals for an inaugural training session and got a sense of how higher education professionals interact with chaplains and religious life on their campuses. The gathering was tense for a few reasons, not the least of which was the untouchable elephant in the room that involves human rights violations, religious intolerance, and dehumanization to the highest degree. The subject itself was an expletive. I wondered- what would it be like to break this rule that says we can’t talk about it, because feelings will be hurt?
The real takeaway for me, frankly, is that rules are oppressive when they allow a group of people in power to feel hurt when an oppressed group moves toward some kind of equity. Remember that quote “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression?” I’ve been thinking about that quote every day. I would add that when you’re accustomed to rules, challenging them feels like a violation- but in this moment, violations of what we think we need and know are the only thing that can bring forward the equality of the oppressed. So F*** the rules.