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Warning: there is swearing in this piece. Obviously.

I have got into the Netflix series The Good Place, thanks to fellow ATPer Jeremiah Traeger. It’s well worth a watch for its philosophical content, dealing with it with a light-hearted touch.

As a result, I am going to use it as a stimulus for a number of posts. You don’t need to have watched the show at all.

To set the scene, Jeremiah described the show as follows:

I’ve recently been watching The Good Place, an NBC comedy starring Kristen Bell. It’s a whimsical moral philosophy-soaked comedy about a woman who ends up in the “good afterlife”, even though she knows that she doesn’t deserve to be there. This universe’s afterlife is decidedly non-Christian (one character says that most religions got around 5% of the afterlife right), but there is still a somewhat “damnation” and “salvation” based system where good people go to The Good Place and bad people end up in The Bad Place (a place of fire and torture) when they die.

In the show, being that the setting is some sort of heaven, the protagonists are not allowed to swear. “F*ck” becomes “fork” and “sh*t” becomes “shirt”. Things are “bullshirt”, and “what the forking hell is going on?” It still makes me smile to hear that at the end of the second season!

The point I would like to make, or ask, today is: by changing the word to a euphemism, does this make the saying of the word any more polite or less sweary?

I get this with the word “fricking” or “freaking” when small children say it. They may not understand it, but they are saying a word that is synonymous with “f*cking”, and so I ask them not to. One of my twins did so the other day after watching yet another Roblox You Tube video.

And with slightly older children who do know the meaning of “f*cking”, the replacement with “fricking” is surely even more conscious.

Then again, whilst I can provide a synonym for any given word, and you would get a very similar meaning such that meaning is the most important dimension, with swearing it is about intention. You intend to shock, or use a taboo word, so it is the tabooness about it that holds the value. But providing a synonym for the taboo surely still registers the original word in the brain of the hearer?

Or does it? Though we know that “fricking” means “f*cking”, fricking takes on its own sound and just becomes the intention behind the word, or the mildness. “Fricking” is just, you know, “fricking”. You could argue an analogy with “pussy” and “c*nt”. They technically mean the same, but one is milder than the other.

Language is a funny thing because there are no two true synonyms. We say words “mean” the same in that they may (in the case of nouns) refer to the same physical thing: they are reference markers. But our brains extract different meanings from the various synonyms used. Such is the wonderful nuance of language.

That’s a lot of waffle, but I like the fact that something so innocuous in a light comedy can give to so much thought.

So, what do you think? Is “forking” swearing? Could a pre-watershed (on terrestrial TV) programme carry “forks” and “shirts”, “fricking” and “freaking”? If heaven switched the words in your mouth from “f*ck” to “fork”, would this just be a case of heaven fooling itself?

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...