A Great Gift Book — But Give It Anonymously

February 2001By Mary Meehan

Mary Meehan has written widely, especially on issues of violence.

Cuss Control: The Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing.  By James V. O’Connor. Three Rivers Press/Random House. 239 pages. $12.95.



The young man behind the desk at a research facility was intrigued by the book I happened to be carrying. “Cuss Control,” he said thoughtfully. “I might need that when you’re through with it.”

Judging by what we hear on the streets and in private conversations, millions of people need this book. Author James O’Connor told The Washington Times that some may receive it as an anonymous gift. “Some people may get five or six copies,” he added.

Some of us remember a time when most people were careful about using the words “Hell” or “dammit.” Now, though, use of what O’Connor calls “the often vicious” F-word is commonplace. We hear it on the streets and in movies, see it in books and magazines, and perhaps hear it from friends we otherwise respect. It is, O’Connor says, “like a woodpecker hammering away at your eardrum.” Some people use foul words as their assault weapons; others use them mindlessly, from sheer bad habit.

“All right,” you might say, “filthy language is a real problem today. But is it worth a whole book? Couldn’t the man say everything that needs to be said in just a pamphlet?” Perhaps he could. But O’Connor, who heads a public-relations firm and started a Cuss Control Academy, says that “Oprah Winfrey had me on her show and was telling her audience how much she wished she could stop swearing. I decided the world needed a book.” This one, although not perfect, has much to offer both the careful cussers — who try to avoid offending others, but don’t always succeed — and those who are consistently offensive.

O’Connor says that he started swearing as a child. Although he never heard his father swear, he does recall his mother saying “damn” occasionally, but “as the mother of eight children, she was entitled to a few frustrating moments.” Theirs was “a good Catholic family, a happy family, with far more laughter than fights and arguments.” Yet O’Connor “kept on swearing and became very good at it, learning new words” as he got older. He didn’t think much about it until the early 1990s, when he says he noticed that the F-word was being used too much in public. He had used the word often, although not publicly. But he “no longer liked the sound of it” and “didn’t want to contribute to the decline of civility and the rise of bad manners,” and decided to stop. He found it wasn’t so easy, but developed helpful techniques that he shares in his book.

Although several people interviewed in the book mention a Catholic or other religious background as an inhibition to swearing, O’Connor stresses a secular approach. He does say, though, that if religion “diminishes your cussing, go for it,” and he acknowledges that “spiritual enlightenment might be the easiest cure for the common curse.” But if religion “doesn’t fit your mind-set,” he remarks that you should still want “to improve your outlook on life and the perception people have of you.”

Many people, while not making a fuss about it, do not like to hear foul language, especially when used casually. O’Connor tells about two salesmen who called on a potential customer who swore profusely: “We walked away wondering if we even wanted him as a customer,” one of the sales reps remarked. Sometimes the situation is reversed: A hairstylist noted that “we have some elderly customers here and sometimes they don’t come back” because of an employee’s swearing.

Not only is swearing bad for business, it can also lead to violence. O’Connor relates the story of a high school principal who decided to enforce a rule against profanity. He soon noticed a welcome side effect: The school’s 10 or more fights per semester quickly dropped to three. Many students told the principal they were happy about his new policy, and the school’s whole atmosphere improved.

O’Connor offers many practical tips. Have someone record your swearing, he suggests, so you can realize how awful it sounds. When you want to cuss about a bad experience, write it all down; then look it over later, “cleaning up the language and softening the tone. You will realize it’s possible to convey your feelings without profanity.” And when you hear someone else use objectionable language, think of what he might have otherwise said to make his point without giving offense.

O’Connor also stresses substitute words. Rather than saying you were “p— off,” why not say “ticked off” or “teed off”? Or, for that matter, how about simply “furious” or “steamed”? The book offers lists of substitutes for specific bad words, some of which fit better than others.

Many people use the F-word as an all-purpose adjective when no adjective is needed at all. Instead, says O’Connor, “You can rely on the power of your voice, adding inflection to words and syllables. Examples: What DIFFerence does it make? I was inFURiated!” Sometimes, silly words also work. O’Connor tells of a man who yelled at his son to shut the door. His daughter, age five, who had apparently heard some foul language but couldn’t remember it precisely, added: “Yeah, shut the door, you mother father son of a biscuit.” Everyone laughed, and the parents now use “son of a biscuit” to replace cursing.

Occasionally, O’Connor bends over backwards too far to show that he’s a regular guy and poses no danger to the First Amendment. “As a political and social liberal,” he says, “I am a firm believer in freedom of speech” — but that’s hardly threatened by this noncoercive effort to encourage courtesy. Elsewhere he remarks that it’s not wise to swear at “the person you sleep with on a regular basis,” referring to “your spouse or significant other.” When he suggests telling friends that you are trying to reduce your cursing, he stresses: “Make certain they understand you are not asking them to stop swearing or behave differently in front of you.” But isn’t that encouraging them to keep cussing? O’Connor says weakly, “They might tone down anyway….”

He includes many brief interviews with people who cuss, and with some who don’t. Both make interesting points, although some of the non-cussers come across as a bit too smug. But there is much of value in this book, including the reminder that some people who swear have an underlying problem of excessive anger and a bad disposition. O’Connor suggests ways of avoiding anger and remaining calm when confrontation is needed — nothing spectacular, but some commonsense points that might help many.

It’s good that someone has taken on one of the worst features of our uncivil society. Strength to your arm, James O’Connor, strength to your arm!



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