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. OConnor. 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 youre through with it.
Judging by what we hear on the streets and in private conversations, millions of people need this book. Author James OConnor 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 OConnor 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, OConnor 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? Couldnt the man say everything that needs to be said in just a pamphlet? Perhaps he could. But OConnor, 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 dont always succeed and those who are consistently offensive.
OConnor 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 OConnor kept on swearing and became very good at it, learning new words as he got older. He didnt 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 didnt want to contribute to the decline of civility and the rise of bad manners, and decided to stop. He found it wasnt 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, OConnor 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 doesnt 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. OConnor 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 dont come back because of an employees swearing.
Not only is swearing bad for business, it can also lead to violence. OConnor relates the story of a high school principal who decided to enforce a rule against profanity. He soon noticed a welcome side effect: The schools 10 or more fights per semester quickly dropped to three. Many students told the principal they were happy about his new policy, and the schools whole atmosphere improved.
OConnor 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 its 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.
OConnor 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 OConnor, 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. OConnor 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 couldnt 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, OConnor bends over backwards too far to show that hes 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 thats hardly threatened by this noncoercive effort to encourage courtesy. Elsewhere he remarks that its 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 isnt that encouraging them to keep cussing? OConnor says weakly, They might tone down anyway .
He includes many brief interviews with people who cuss, and with some who dont. 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. OConnor suggests ways of avoiding anger and remaining calm when confrontation is needed nothing spectacular, but some commonsense points that might help many.
Its good that someone has taken on one of the worst features of our uncivil society. Strength to your arm, James OConnor, strength to your arm!