On New Year’s Eve, The Professor and I decided we’d like to see a movie. We had a lot of company, judging by the fact that when we got to the mall, we had to park at the farthest end of God’s green acre. As we always do, we consulted movie reviews online to help us decide which show to see. Rotten Tomatoes is where The Professor usually goes first, while I tend to start with MRQE, also known as Movie Review Query Engine. (It was named back in the days when the Information Superhighway had few passengers on it other than geeks and librarians.)
We typically like to see a rating of at least 70% to bother with a movie, and it’s even nicer when a film is up in the 80s. We almost couldn’t believe it when we saw that one of the films currently showing had a mind-blowing 95%/96% (audience/critics) rating on RT. Those kind of numbers are very rare. The film that had so captured the interest of all these moviegoers was The King’s Speech, starring Colin Firth as Prince Albert. During the movie, the prince becomes King George VI after his father dies and his brother Edward abdicates the throne in order to marry his divorced American lover.
The movie’s story revolves around Prince Albert’s—”Bertie’s”—lifelong struggle with a severe stammer. (That word, rather than “stutter,” is used throughout the movie.) Bertie has seen a seemingly endless stream of different speech therapists throughout his life, none of whom has been able to help him improve his speech. This has been difficult in itself, but now that he is king, and now that “the wireless” has a firm grip on worldwide communication, he will be expected to do radio broadcasts. This is especially true—and especially crucial—as the Commonwealth heads into WWII. It falls to him to keep the people informed, and to strengthen the hearts of those for whom he serves as liege.
Out of desperation, the king begins working with Lionel Logue, a speech therapist whom his wife has found for him. Logue’s office is in a shabby basement room whose paint is peeling off the walls. The delightfully eccentric therapist character, played by Geoffrey Rush, uses many unconventional methods to help his clients. Among them is an instruction to the prince to begin swearing when he gets stuck in a stammering pause. We are all treated to the sight of a member of the royal family punctuating his therapeutic practice sentences with fuck-fuck-fuck and shit-shit-shit.
Why should swearing help the speaker push past the involuntary pause? Because swearing is actually seated in a different part of the brain than other speech. Swearing activates a part of the brain related to emotion, rather than the part of the brain that processes, comprehends, and generates language. This fact also has other interesting implications. Swearing has been found to reduce pain and to improve team spirit in the workplace.¹ Tourette’s Syndrome arises from this phenomenon, as well. It is similar to seizure disorders; a spontaneous misfire in the “swearing” part of the brain triggers the production of the involuntary curse word. (People with Tourette’s don’t suddenly say “sofa!” or “canteloupe!”)
I love words, and curse words are words. For a long time, I’ve been interested in the rich storehouse of taboo language. I’ve read some books about it, and I gave a presentation a couple years ago at the annual conference of the National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators, entitled, “Linguistic and Emotional Challenges of Interpreting Foul Language in the Courtroom.” In the future, I know that I will sometimes talk on this blog about fuck, shit, son of a bitch, motherfucker, cunt, asshole, dick, pendejo, chingao, carajo, joder, and hijo de la gran puta madre. All those words are a part of language, and to ignore them is to permit a great lacuna to be created by those who would omit a large part of human expression from linguistic research and discourse.
As you can guess, the king went on to make his big speech after the 1939 invasion of Poland by Germany, guided by the presence of his therapist. I don’t believe that’s a spoiler, any more than saying that the Allies won the war would be. Mr. Logue accompanied the king at every wartime speech, and they remained friends for the rest of their lives. If you haven’t seen it yet, The King’s Speech is definitely worth spending an evening on, and I hope you enjoy it with some fuckin’ popcorn.
¹Thanks to my nephew Michael for this last bit.