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Pay attention or I’ll **** you up, you little ****.

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Though I suppose this would get me fired in Arizona, I’ll admit that I strategically punctuate my lesson plans with profanity. That guy in the back of the class who thinks he failed his engineering midterm yesterday and spent all night fretting about it instead of sleeping? He’s drifting off — and would be, no matter what time it was or class he was attending. How can I keep him awake?

Profanity.

Don’t believe me? Ask science:

The unique emotional power of taboo language reflects properties that affect cognitive processes like memory and attention. Cursing is unlike other forms of speech; it is more physically arousing, as evidenced through physiological responses such as skin conductance or neural activity such as amygdala activation (Jay, 2003; Jay, Harris, & King, in press).

The image accompanying that post also caught my attention, as it reminded me of something I wrote a few years back but feel all the more strongly about now: the language of Deadwood. I’ll put it below the fold, though, as this is a family blog, but I’ll note that the best part about what I wrote may well be one of the comments. So:

Why does this sentence work?

Ellsworth: I’ll tell you what: I may have fucked my life up flatter than hammered shit, but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker.

My best guess:

The “I’ll tell you what” is conventional enough.  Only, which convention does it partake of here?  Is it the quiet, conspiratorial “I’ll tell you what” salesmen whisper when they want to do us a favor and throw in the top coat for an extra $400?  (They’ll have to run it by their manager.) If it is, the “tell” and “what,” the speech and its content, would be emphasized; the “I” and “you” would sink, unstressed, in order to abnegate responsibility for the fucking “I’m” about to do to “you.” That doesn’t seem to work.

So, how about the one in which the stresses fall drunkenly on the first and third beats?  “I’ll tell you what” embraces the responsibility for the beating “I” declare, for all to hear, that “I’m” gonna put on “you.” This works much, much better.  Such statements should, by law or enforced custom, incite terrible violence … only this one doesn’t.

Instead, we’re treated to a somber but forceful self-introspection.  Ellsworth, we learn, “fucked [his] life up flatter than hammered shit.” Look at mess of alliteration and assonance there.  We have the f sounds stumbling in and out of “fucked,” “life” and “flatter.” Notice how the poetic trickery staples the phrase together.  The  occurs in “fucked” and draws “life” and “up” together, almost into a single word (li-fəp), uniting life up with that what’s been fucked.  You know, life.

The third f introduces the next sound, what linguists call the “near-open, front unrounded”) æ which occurs in the word which best describes it: “flat.”  The flæ pulls together the alliterative fs with the assonant æs.  (It also flips the l and f sounds of “life up,” a mirroring which’ll manifest thematically half a second later.)  The repetition of the internal æ does what it describes: it hammers.

The æææ drives home the content of the phrase, too.  He may have “fucked up [his] life,” but he did so methodically and with force, rendering it “flatter than hammered” … and at this point we expect something worthy of the assonant pounding it just took.  I’m not sure why we do, since the phrase itself is difficult to imagine: how do you fuck up something flat?  Begs the question:

How do you fuck it up flatter?

The image we have at this point in the sentence is one of drunk declaration; of the man who makes it, we sense that he’s ruined his life through long effort, through the labor evoked by the mention and soundscape of hammering.  So we expect the object on the anvil, so to speak, will be worthy of the beating it’s taking.  Something substantial, you know, dull-red and ready for a vicious forging.

Instead, we get “shit.” That’s been “hammered” flat, no less. Suddenly, the entire sentence turns on its head.  The rugged worker, ruined by his steady toil, turns out to have been hammering shit.  Those forceful æs suddely sound as tinny as the i in shit.

It’s pound, pound. pound, clank.  Thud, thud, thud, tick.  Our brains skip a beat.  In short, our impression of Ellsworth changes from proud prospector to tedious slattern in the space of a sentence.

When he realizes his mistake, he pulls back and changes course. “But,” he says, and mouths another, equally conventional, opening statement.  Unlike the threating “I’ll tell you what,” however, “I stand before you today” belongs to the rhetoric of the public confessional.  No one stands before anyone, today or any other day, unless they’ve come to repent (or pretend to).  Realizing the bluster of “I’ll tell you what” has come to naught, he decides to fluff his feathers Protestant-style with a declaration of sins past.

As with all such declarations, this one suggests the current superiority of the speaker to his audience.  Do they stand before the crowd, listing their iniquities for strangers to judge?  No, they don’t.  They stand there, comfortable, quiet in their sin.  But the speaker, in high Protestant-style, aims to clear his name.  In public.  He is no Catholic, absolved in isolation.  He has a direct relation to God and a firm commitment to the community.  Just like Milton.

Who, incidentally, Ellsworth suddenly channels: “I stand before you today beholden to no human cocksucker.” The unnecessary and archaic “beholden” thrusts Milton in your mind, as does the pejoratively adjectival “human.” This “human” reeks of “mere.” God will judge him, it suggests, not some human authority. Given the implicit insult of “human,” then, we expect something exalted, like “authorty,” to follow.  Instead, we’re treated to “cocksucker.”

The dissonance is jarring.  We may not think it consciously, but somewhere, our brains know “cocksucker” ain’t sufficiently exalted to be diminished so.  We wonder what, exactly, is lower than a “human cocksucker.” We imagine the angelic host on its knees, The Great Chain of Being collapsing before our eyes.  Links collide with unlike links and ungodly things starting slouching, waiting to be born …

… and then we realize: This, kids, is literature.

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