Two hogs wallow in muddy water

The following book review appeared in slightly longer form in New Oxford Review, February, 2001.

Review of Cuss Control: The Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing, by James V. O'Connor. Three Rivers Press/Random House, 239 pages.

Reviewed by Mary Meehan

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 a gift from unnamed friends. "Some people may get five or six copies," he added.

Some of us remember a time when most people were careful about using even "hell" or "dammit." Now, though, 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, 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.

O'Connor, who heads a public-relations firm and started a Cuss Control Academy, says that he started swearing as a child, although "I never heard a swear word from my father...I remember my mother saying 'damn' occasionally, but as the mother of eight children, she was entitled to a few frustrating moments." O'Connor himself "kept on swearing and became very good at it, learning new words as I got older." He didn't think about it very much until the early 1990s, when he noticed that the F-word was used too much in public. He had used the word often, although not publicly. But "I no longer liked the sound of it...I didn't want to contribute to the decline of civility and the rise of bad manners, so I decided to stop." He didn't find it easy, but developed helpful techniques that he shares in his book.

O'Connor notes, by the way, that foul language can be bad for business. He tells how two salesmen 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.

Swearing 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, he suggests, think of what they might have said instead to make their point without giving offense.

He places much stress on substitute words. Rather than saying you were "p-- off," why not say "ticked off" or "teed off"? Or, for that matter, how about a simple "furious" or "steamed"? The book offers long 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 where 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, too, silly words work. O'Connor quotes a man who yelled at his son to shut the door. A daughter, aged five, apparently had heard some tough language but couldn't remember it precisely. So she 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 too far over backwards to show that he's a regular guy and no danger to the First Amendment. "As a political and social liberal," he says, "I am a firm believer in freedom of speech"--which is hardly threatened by this effort to encourage courtesy.

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 reminders that some people who swear have an underlying problem of excessive anger and a bad disposition. O'Connor suggests ways of avoiding anger and of remaining calm when confrontation is needed. Nothing spectacular here, but some common-sense points that might help many.

It's good that someone has taken on one of the worst features of our uncivil society. To use an old-fashioned cheer: Strength to your arm, James O'Connor, strength to your arm!