By Frank J. Wilstach

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In his massive survey, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, David Crystal places toe-stubbing swearing firmly within the expressive or emotional function of language. He sees it as a visceral means of releasing excessive nervous energy and, as such, one of the commonest forms of language. If life is a pressure cooker, stub-your-toe swearing allows steam out in measured, manageable bursts. It's a loss of decorum to which we can all relate—a lowest common denominator, ringing true no matter how preposterous the circumstance.

Arguably (and I have no evidence to support the contention), this is intended to break the cycle of verbal bickering. Or maybe it just makes things more pleasant for the therapist. I'm not sure whether Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman tried such discourse-switching to save their ten-year union, but Cruise himself is known to use politeness as a barrier. An article in Time magazine featured Cruise on the cover, under the heading BEING TOM. The profile of Cruise and his spectacular success in Hollywood included this observation: 38 Expletive Deleted What [Cruise] seems to have perfected—on film and in life—is the ability to win you over, to be liked without really being known.

Today it has comfortably entered female discourse, though perhaps not as fully and equally as the male (I discuss this in more detail in "Son of a Bitch"). Today FUCK is known and used more for its emotional meaning. "), and abuse ("You fucker! "). But what's extraordinary is its migration pattern. It started out as a taboo word because of its referential function. Then, as the word gravitated over time toward more emotional outlets, it lost its referential meaning. Now the taboo still lurks, though nowhere as strongly as 46 Expletive Deleted even twenty years ago.

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A dictionary of similes by Frank J. Wilstach


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