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How Online Writing Increases Vulgarity

This week, I was scrolling through my Instagram feed, minding my own business when I came across a post from my younger sister. It seems that she’s always finding new ways to entertain herself while she’s on her journey to become a professional dancer.

The caption read: “Wrote an article for someone’s blog. Tried out a new hashtag and it seems to be catching on.”

I stopped scrolling as soon as I read that. Even if you’ve never met me, you probably know me as an opinionated, blunt, and often vulgar young woman. I assumed that my sister had written an article for a mainstream news website and that the sudden appearance of vulgarity was an accident. But no, it turns out that this was simply a case of her trying something new and experimenting with language until something caught on.

Whether you’re a professional writer or just writing for fun, you might find that the more you write, the more you want to write. And what happens when you want to write a lot? You write a lot, that’s what. But what if this habit of writing leads you to use harsher language? What if, as a result of your constant wordplay, you develop an unbecoming cynicism? What if you start to think and speak like your characters? Or, to quote the great Anton Chekhov, “Where there is love, there is God, and where there is God, there is hope.” Is this a world that you want to live in?”

This week’s column is going to examine the issue of vulgarity in the context of digital media and the impact that constant writing could have on your language and your work.

The Perils of Online Vulgarity

To begin with, let’s examine the case of my sister, Shallu. She’s always been a very clever and creative kid, but she lacked the emotional maturity to fully understand the impact that her words would have on others. Despite this, she managed to find her way to a prestigious university and, from there, to a reputable journalism school. She interned at a top-notch newspaper and, as part of her training, worked on the metro section. When the time came for her to apply for a job, she didn’t waste any time in securing a position at a major news website.

As a self-taught writer, she jumped at the chance to do any kind of writing, even if it meant contributing to an incredibly popular food blog. Her task was to interview renowned chefs about their favorite meals and cooking techniques. While the work was highly demanding and required her to learn a lot in a short space of time, it also gave her the opportunity to try out new things and even new ways of expressing herself. She tried out various different sentence structures and experimented with different words and expressions until she found a style that resonated with her audience. Essentially, it was a case of finding her voice. Once she found it, she didn’t want to stop talking. Her style is characterized by an impressive vocabulary — some words and phrases are rather over-the-top — and an unapologetic use of profanity. Take a look:

“Suck it” and “cock roast” are just two of the words that Shallu uses on her blog. She’s not afraid to throw around four-letter words with ease. The thing is, not many people outside of her circle of friends and family will have heard these words before. When she uses them in conversation, outside of the blogosphere, she typically substitutes them with more palatable alternatives. So, while most people might use “suck it” when they’re discussing a game or movie they just watched, they’ll more likely say: “That was such a good movie! I loved it.”

In a nutshell, finding the right tone and language for your work is an important consideration. You don’t want to come off as too vulgar or too smart, especially if you’re attempting to appeal to a broad audience. The last thing you want is for someone to read your work and not understand what you’re saying. As the writer Stephen King notes, “When you write for an audience, you’re writing for the idiot in the theater who doesn’t get the joke.”

Vulgarity and the Rise of the Meme

Even those of us who love a good raunchy joke and consider ourselves well-read and worldly have to admit that there’s something rather endearing about the sheer vulgarity of the Internet. Take a look at TikTok — one of the most popular social media platforms — and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a place where people can share hilarious videos and GIFs about anything and everything. There’s not a topic that isn’t covered, and there’s always something new to discover.

Essentially, it’s an environment where experimentation is encouraged and originality is prized. As a result, we’re seeing the rise of the meme, that strange and often controversial product of the digital age.

A “meme” is a unit of cultural content, typically a short clip accompanied by some text that stands for something in relation to media or pop culture. In other words, a meme is a unit of cultural content that can be repeated and distributed via social media platforms like TikTok and Twitter.

You might know that memes gained a lot of popularity during the 2016 US presidential election. Many of the memes were associated with the then-candidate Donald Trump and featured images of the future president and other influential political figures in bizarre scenarios. Since then, as the country has digested the results of the divisive election, the meme has seen a resurgence. There are now entire sub-Reddits — or chat rooms — devoted to sharing memes.

The thing is, memes aren’t just limited to politics and elections. Any kind of popular culture–related content works as a meme. So, if you have a witty retort or a funny quote that you think relates to a particular topic, you can create a meme for it. Then, when someone decides to use your meme, you get to relive the glory days of your cultural discovery.

“I love talking politics with my family and friends, but since I couldn’t find anyone who shares my views, I made up my own. I don’t know if I truly convince anyone of my point of view, but at least I can make them laugh,” writes Anna, a member of the Meme Team. She goes on to say, “I love sharing my memes because it gives me the opportunity to express my views on current affairs, while also being able to laugh at myself.”

It’s rather impressive how much some people are able to fit into such little boxes. Consider the Catholic priest who wrote a rather pious letter to the Pope in 1851. The letter went viral and has since been attributed to Father Brown, the fictional character from the “Father Brown” detective stories by G.K. Chesterton. The character, who is based on real-life priest Edmund Ignatius Brown, was created by Chesterton in 1911 and his rather unique stories helped to popularize the Catholic Church in the early twentieth century. Father Brown, who is always trying to keep up with the times, uses language and techniques that are rather at odds with the censorious letter he’s writing. In one scene, he even describes in detail the kind of clothing he wears and, as a result, some rather risqué scenes play out in front of the reader. It’s said that when Chesterton wrote of Father Brown’s unique phrase, “Oh, hell!” it made the clergyman’s rather unorthodox methods rather famous.

Why Experiment With Language?

It’s rather odd to think about, but a large amount of what we consider “standard” English — the kind of English that appears in dictionaries — came about because of a lack of imagination in the English language. For example, take “suck it” and substitute “that is” for it. The sentence: “That is so sweet of you to do this for me. Thank you so much.” would have been rather difficult for most English-speaking children to put into practice. So much of their day-to-day speech is already heavily laced with adult language that they had to learn to replace the vulgarities with something palatable. But once they learned to do this, the language began to change. “Suck it” started to be used not simply in reference to oral sex, but to any kind of provocation or irritation, as in: “She snapped at her brother and then ran upstairs to cry.” In the same way, “cock roast” became a regular part of the English language. It wasn’t originally used in a sexual context. In fact, the first written record of the phrase can be found in William Shakespeare’s “Henry IV,” where it’s used as a metaphor for an unwise or foolish decision.