Is it time for a colorful metaphor?

Published 6:04 pm Friday, March 13, 2020

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Did you know it used to be illegal to curse in public in Virginia? That’s right, no matter how much you’d like to drop a few choice four-letter words, you might have been stuck with a fine afterwards.

You might be thinking this is something people had to deal with two centuries ago when decorum was held in higher regard. And you’d be right, because according to an NPR article, the law has been in place since 1792, originally with an 83 cent fine.

But surely this isn’t still a modern day issue, right?

Well, technically it was until Virginia’s Senate and House agreed to repeal it… in February 2020. The governor signed the bill not long afterwards, and it will take effect on July 1. Foul-mouthed offenders will no longer have to pay the $250 fine (which I assume was somehow adjusted for inflation along the way from the original less-than-a-dollar fine) for the misdemeanor.

That NPR article didn’t have data on how often the law was actually enforced and how many people were charged. But I’m guessing that number was extremely low. I doubt there were police officers lurking in the shadows hoping to catch someone whenever a rude word slips out. It’s actually a bit baffling the rule stayed on the books so long when it’s not even necessary. (Again, according to that NPR article, they’ve been trying and failing to repeal it since 2016. Why couldn’t they agree on that sooner?! It’s not even a partisan issue!)

But pointless ordinances aside, this story got me thinking about curse words in general. Isn’t it kind of strange that we have a whole set of words that are so rude and awful that we’re not “supposed” to use them? They exist but they’re off limits, especially for young children.

Think about movie ratings for example. Have you ever noticed that some ratings warn for “strong language” within the contents of the film? That warning exists alongside other warnings such as intense violence and drug use and nudity. PG-13 movies are often only allowed one use of the “f word” from start to finish.

All the rules seem kind of arbitrary to me and, of course, many people like to break them. When do people choose to slip in a cuss word or two? Often, it’s when we’re angry or trying to insult someone. For some people, they’re just normal words used to add more emphasis to their regular conversation.

If I had time to go on a linguistic deep dive, I’d be curious to know how English’s set of curse words were developed. Who got together and decided that these specific words were too offensive to use? Where do phrases like “cuss like a sailor” come from? Why are sailors the ones who are the most foul-mouthed out of every other profession??

I personally feel like I’ve been so desensitized to “bad” words over the years that they don’t even bother me these days. But that doesn’t mean I go around dropping curse words left and right. I’d like to still be respectful to others around who don’t like to hear those words. Plus, I think using euphemisms for curse words are more fun anyway!

Lastly, when I think about swears, I always think about that Star Trek movie where the crew of the Enterprise travels back to 1986. Spock refers to swears as “colorful metaphors” which I think is the most delightful way to refer to something that’s supposed to be so rude. At one point, the crew gets into a sticky situation and Spock wonders if it’s “time for a colorful metaphor.”

Thinking about it now, it’s probably a good thing that movie took place across the country in San Francisco. Because if they’d been in Virginia in 1986, those “colorful metaphors” might have gotten them into a bit of trouble.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or 252-332-7206.