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Curse words

What the *&^ %$# @! happened


CHIDANAND RAJGHATTA Musings on life, politics and economics from TOI's Washington correspondent

Most professional sportsmen are said to be bilingual. They typically speak their mother tongue or first language, and sometime during their career they learn profanity. Have you seen a sportsman celebrate lately? It invariably comes with an outpouring of curse words, a torrent of swearing. Even celebratory gestures have become vulgar and abusive - like the Indian hockey player who gave the middle finger to the crowd recently after scoring a goal, doubtless after he had been provoked.

And those popular motions that bowlers go through these days after they take a wicket - don't kid yourself that they are starting a lawnmower or pummeling an opponent into the ground or delivering a stiff upper cut. That clenched fist makes deep inroads into the anatomy. Gone are the days of genteel spin bowlers (most famously India's spin quartet) who took wickets with the mildest of appeals, and then sauntered towards team mates for handshakes and a pat on the back. (" Yes he's bowled, but is he out?" the great Chandrashekar is said to have politely queried an intransigent umpire. ) These days, sportsmen come close to fornicating on the field after a wicket taken or goal scored, jumping on each other with asinine grace.

There's a reasonable explanation why sportsmen -and others aiming for an immediate pinnacle - swear. So much is at stake and they are under so much pressure that they have worked themselves into a lather. So when they achieve their goal or nail the target or do whatever constitutes success, they unleash a torrent of abuse, often directed at no one in particular, as an expression of relief. When they fail, it comes out as an expression of frustration.

In some ways it is like how many of us curse when we accidentally stub our toe or inflict some hurt on ourselves. Some researchers have claimed that swearing actually relieves the effect of physical pain. In the same spirit, some social scientists have suggested that swearing is an underrated and under-appreciated anger management technique. Would you rather that a person welling up with road rage let loose a stream of expletives or reach into his glove compartment for his handgun? It's a no-brainer.

Profanity or swearing has been around for ages, from the time our prehistoric ancestors accidentally dropped a brick on their foot, a mishap that possible also gave birth to singing. But none of this makes the slightest &#*%ing difference to the residents of Middleborough, Massachusetts, who last week voted 183-50 approving a proposal to impose a $20 fine on the use of profanity in public. Evidently, a majority of residents had had it with needless swearing, such as earlier in this para, where the copulatory interjection was really quite unnecessary.

But who draws the line, when, and where? This is where the damn consensus falls bloody apart. Does use of the word "damn" or "bloody" constitute profanity? Damn, derived from "damnation" (or latin damnatio), which means being condemned to hell, is considered a form a religious profanity by hardline believers. But what if you are an atheist who has reduced it to a mere interjection, further distorting its intonation to "daiimmnn" the same way some folks say "Oh shoot!" when they need to use a scatological expletive?

The messiahs of Middleborough have not issued a their list of profane words, but civil liberties and free speech types are already up in arms, protesting that the township is trampling on their first amendment rights. In a comment headlined "WTF, Middleborough?" (I'm assuming you know WTF WTF stands for), a civil liberties activist, arguing that a Supreme Court has held that a government cannot ban public speech just because it contains profanity, raged, "Some laws are good, some are bad, and some are just @! #$ ! ridiculous. "

Among the cases cited was Cohen vs California, in which a man was arrested for disturbing the peace after he went out in public wearing a jacket bearing the words "F--- the Draft. " (His jacket sported the actual word, which propriety demands cannot be spelled out in a family newspaper. ) The Supreme Court held that he had a first amendment right to wear the jacket, noting that "one man's vulgarity is another's lyric. " But the Supreme Court has also helped establish the extent to which government can regulate profanity on air in a separate infamous case involving seven dirty words.

Meantime, Middleborough leaders have explained that the town has had a bylaw on the books that makes swearing in public a crime, and the new ordinance actually decriminalises public profanity. Because it took so much effort to haul a curser into court, it was rarely enforced. Now, the ordinance allows police to write tickets for swearing in public, much like they would do for traffic violations.

For the civil libertarians though, it all seems such a goddamn waste of time. Whether in Massachusetts or Mumbai, they would rather have Talibanists police real crime rather than phony cursing.

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