In the middle of a meeting with a lady bureau director in Guangzhou, China, in the mid 1980’s, I was shocked when she casually referred to someone we were chatting about as a dumbfuck. Back in those days, a Hong Kong person, particularly a woman, in her position would never swear or fart in public. I was therefore taken by surprise. I did my best to recover after swallowing a phantom blob of saliva, by muttering something like “no shit” to demonstrate solidarity, and to lessen my embarrassment (I was embarrassed by my embarrassment, since no one else present seemed embarrassed). The Revolution had made women as crass as men back then. Female profanity was more than swearing, it was a social statement, like Vivienne Leigh in Gone With The Wind I suppose. Perhaps I should say “it had been a social statement” because to my lady director, it had already become a habit, and ceased to carry any meaning or political gesture of gender equality.
It’s interesting to see how we take turn doing the same thing. While swearing by educated women has gone out of fashion in the mainland, more and more young people “in the outside world”, boys and girls, are swearing publicly, frequently, in high decibel these days. I wish they were also a statement of some kind, but they aren’t, not any more anyway. So, why do I think profanity is an issue one way or the other?
First of all, let me declare: I swear, of course. In fact, I enjoy swearing at the right moment because I like descriptive words that convey emotions, can be delivered with passion, or an exclamation mark. Many a cuss word fall into that category. Furthermore, I don’t discriminate whether an oath has been uttered by a man or woman, except for some Cantonese expletives that seem to be for men only because of physiological restrictions if you take it literally.
So, the issue of profanity, to me, is quality. Like many things these days, swearing has lost it’s spark because of unthinking application. Something that should be colourful and emotional has, again, become banal in the 21st century. Take the subway train, go to a bar, look up Facebook, watch a Hollywood thriller, or, if you’re in a cool business, attend a business meeting: One small word, a single four-letter word, is threatening to dominate the English vocabulary. Surprised? Oh fuck! Excited? Oh fuck again! Angry? Fuck! Fuck fuck!! Envious? Ooh fuck . . . Sad? Ah . . fuck. Frustrated? Fuck!!! Impressed? Fuck me! Some Hollywood big star (I can’t think of an example, sorry) staring at a tsunami wave rushing towards him at 200km/h would mutter: Ooh fuck, ooh fuck, oh my Gawd! before turning and running to safety towards the camera, against all odds and gravity.
Oh well, what’s wrong with one word fits all. Imagine, when you’re texting or chatting on line with a limited vocabulary, when you are, you know, you know, stuck for words, but compelled to say something, anything, then just type: “ooh . . . fuck . . .”, and click SEND. You could be meaning anything: Support, objection, approval, condemnation, admiration, concern, disgust, all at the same time, or none of the above. You can’t find a more powerful and versatile word in the history of language. No other word can give the impression of a strong and definite opinion without committing to any position. It’s a great way to be part of an online circle of 527 friends without having to think. Why bother the brain huh? It’s fucked anyway.