The Weekly Challenge is a column that tackles self-improvement seven days at a time.
You could say the proverbial excrement has hit the fan in Middleborough, Minn., where anyone caught dropping an f -bomb, s-bomb, c-bomb, a-bomb, j-bomb, b-bomb or any other variety of aural stink bomb will be fined $20, following a town hall vote to ban swearing in public last month.
America's heartland isn't the only place where the anti-swearing movement is taking hold: In Australia, a new study conducted by the Advertising Standards Board reveals that consumers have become more prudish about p's and q's in the last half-decade; across the pond, the English Northern Football League is introducing a profanity policing system next season. Apparently there's no swearing in soccer. WTF?
To me this all sounds absolutely cotton pickin' crazy but it also got me thinking about my own uncouth vocabulary and inspired this week's challenge where – like a a good Minnesotan – I vowed to give up all forms of foul language for one week. Slip-ups would mean $20 in a swear jar. At the outset I really didn't think this would be a problem. Yes, I liked to swear, but surely I could silence my inner Andrew Dice Clay if I put my mind to it.
Operation Soap Mouth began over the Canada Day long weekend, which I spent with a group of old pals at a cottage. My first realization: My friends swear a lot. Sitting around a table with 10 people (no kids), I tried to count 30 profanity-free seconds. This turned out to be impossible. Swear words are seamlessly braided into our everyday speech patterns. One friend uses the word "f-ing" the way a valley girl uses "like."
Blame the Beastie Boys…
I can remember the first time I ever heard the f-word. I was 7, out playing in the snow when my best friend Ashleigh suddenly dropped the f-bomb like it was a secret she could no longer keep in. I was so upset I ran back to the house crying.
My vocabulary has loosened up considerably in the past 25 years. I swear at least 20 or 30 times a day, triple that if I happen to have gotten into an argument and then need to relay it to a few friends/family members/strangers. (In my vocabulary there is no such thing as an idiot, there is only a "f-ing" idiot, a phrase which aptly describes my own misguided notion that quitting cold turkey was going to be easy.)
I slipped twice in the first three hours – once when describing the conditions on the highway (rhymes with pity) and again when singing along to a song. I only counted this second slip as a half-demerit (i.e., $10) since technically I was quoting The Beastie Boys.
Over three days I swore 10 times. There was an f-bomb regarding mosquitoes (I came home with 40 bites, so that one was warranted), another when I spilled an entire drink on myself.
Refraining from swearing often forced me to be more articulate. It felt a bit like when I hear one of my mom-friends telling her two-year-old to "use your words," though at some points I confess that words failed me (in which case I reverted to cheats such as "What the eff?")
A prescription for profanity
There is a case to be made for cursing. In an article in Psychology Today, British psychiatrist and philosopher Neel Burton lists the possible benefits of bad language, which include power and control, non-violent retribution and pain relief. (Has anyone in the history of time failed to curse when hitting their thumb with a hammer?) There's also humour, bonding and self-expression, which explains most of my own cursing. Finally there are actual physical bonuses such as increased circulation and elevated endorphins. Why do I swear? Because my doctor told me it was f-ing good for me.
I'm not totally unsympathetic to the other side, however. My No. 1 urban pet peeve is sitting on public transit when a bunch of teenagers (fist shake) are sitting in the back, using horrible language at top volume. There is almost always some sweet looking old lady sitting a few rows up looking like she's about to cry. It's almost enough to make me hop on the anti-swear bandwagon, if it weren't for that pesky matter of free speech. Note I said almost. Truth be told I could never abandon cursing and (barring a move to Middleborough), I'll be damned if anyone tries to make me.
The next challenge
Feel like skipping the gym? Stand in front of the mirror and call yourself a lazy cow three times. Does that change your mind?
A new fitness book claims the best way to get fit is to berate yourself (out loud) for being out of shape. But do negative affirmations really work? Let's find out. This week Courtney Shea is ditching the encouraging self-talk and treating to herself to some tough love.
Offer your own two cents (negative or otherwise) at fb.com/globelifestream.