Skip to comments.Our sensitivity about 'curse' words has changed with the times
Posted on 09/06/2003 7:20:53 AM PDT by ChemistCat
Pardon our French, as people used to say back in the days when they didn't use the following words quite so often, but we're going to now talk about the phrases "pissed off" and "that sucks." Are these dirty words? Or just words? And what about those other words, the ones that are still taboo enough to require dashes or abbreviations in newspapers such as this one? The s-word. The f-word. The f-word used as the all-purpose adjective. High-school teachers will tell you the halls are full of these words. As for "pissed off" students say it so often "they're unaware they even say it," Highland High chemistry teacher Monica French says. Expletives made headlines last month when the Grove Theater in Pleasant Grove canceled its production of Neil Simon's "Rumors" after the playwright refused to let the theater delete language it thought its audience would find offensive "a lot of G-D and Jesus Christs," explains theater co-owner Gayliene Omary, plus "the f-word used very casually." Acoustically speaking, words are just a series of hisses, pops and clicks. " 'Bad' words only have an effect if people think they're bad," says Marianna Di Paolo, chairwoman of the University of Utah Department of Linguistics. "Words are harmful if a culture regards them as harmful. Words become taboo because the culture associates taboo things with them. In Victorian times, the word "leg" was considered risque, Di Paolo explains. At the dinner table, it wasn't acceptable to ask for a leg or a thigh of chicken, which is why people started using the term "dark meat." (People also put skirts on tables and beds, so the furniture legs wouldn't show.) Within our own cultural memory, the word "pregnant" was forbidden on "I Love Lucy" in the early 1950s. Our sensitivity about words changes over time. Linguists call that "cognitive dialectology," says Rodolfo Celis, a linguist at Arcadia University. A word like "pissed" or "sucks," for example, might be considered crass and therefore inappropriate in "polite company." Then it starts seeping into more general usage, until finally there's a tipping point, Celis says, in which the word has become so mainstream that the people who still don't use it often the older generation start complaining that language has become coarser. Eventually, though, a word that once could get your mouth washed out with soap will be regarded as just a word. Does that mean we've become desensitized and crass? More desensitized but also less neurotic about bodily functions and sex? Have the words simply become sounds, devoid of any reference to something taboo? " 'Suck' is one that I am personally struggling with," says Celis, "as I perceive that it is shifting. When things are shifting there are some dangerous points of ambiguity." So recently, while teaching his freshman English composition class, in what he describes as "a lame attempt at inter-group affiliation," he said to his students: "I know some of these chapters kind of suck in the sense of exciting reading." The word sounded vulgar to his own ears, Celis admits. "But I genuinely think it is an almost neutral adjective for many freshmen."
Taboos evolve Playwright Neil Simon's lawyer told Grove Theatre co-owner Gayliene Omary that "educated people" can handle the f-word, and that Utahns need to become desensitized. That got Omary thinking. "Maybe he's saying that educated people don't let these words have power. Maybe we give these words more power than they deserve." But Omary doesn't agree. If a person becomes desensitized to the f-word, she says, it means becoming desensitized to the disrespect she believes it embodies. Robert Thompson, professor of media and culture at Syracuse University, recently heard a young Presbyterian pastor use the word "crap" from the pulpit. Thompson guesses the pastor didn't realize that the word once referred exclusively to excrement. The media didn't teach Americans to swear, Thompson notes. But what "The Sopranos," Ozzy Osbourne and countless movies have done is "domesticate" words that once were limited to fenced-off areas of social discourse behind the barn, in bars, on ships full of proverbial sailors. On Thompson's campus, walking across the quad, he'll hear students sprinkling the f-word throughout their conversations which makes him wonder if, by the time these students are grandparents, the f-word will shock anyone at all. "It took centuries for the f-word to acquire the taboo that it holds; it'll take only a generation to completely wear it out," Thompson predicts. And then what? "We're wearing these things out very quickly, and you can't just make these things up. An entire culture has to agree that a word means something, that it has an aura and a gravitas, and that takes generations." Cuss words are not a renewable resource, he says. The good news is that "the only reason this stuff outrages anyone is because we've all agreed it deserves outrage," Thompson argues. The bad news, he says, is that a culture needs its curses. His theory is that the reason road rage has escalated is that the use of the middle finger as a non-verbal curse has become so casual. "It used to be so forbidden and taboo. So if you used it, you felt you'd gotten your revenge." Now, because it's lost some of its power, "you have to go elsewhere for revenge."
Violence rehearsal Salt Lake psychologist Lynn Johnson disagrees, seeing swearing not as an alternative to violence but a "rehearsal for real violence," a way of training the brain at being irritable and aggressive. As for vulgar language, "Can you imagine Mother Teresa saying, 'Hey, that really sucks, I am so pissed off,' "Johnson asks. Often it's not the words themselves, it's the tone in which the words are uttered that's damaging, to both the listener and the speaker, says Jim O'Connor of Lake Forest, Ill., who five years ago founded the Cuss Control Academy. O'Connor's list of reasons swearing "imposes a personal penalty" includes: "It makes you unpleasant to be with; it endangers your relationships; it's a tool for whiners and complainers, . . . it shows you don't have control." Swearing also represents the dumbing down of America, O'Connor says, and it lacks imagination. Despite his campaign, and hundreds of interviews on TV, radio and in print, O'Connor reports that America as a whole is swearing more than ever. On an individual basis, though, people tell him he's helped them clean up their acts. His own daughter, who once was "quite foul-mouthed," stopped swearing cold-turkey three years ago, at age 24. "She became a Mormon and stopped swearing," O'Connor says. "Most of the people I know who really stopped swearing, who stopped completely, did it because of religion." The Bible is clear in its admonition about taking the Lord's name in vain. As for vulgar language, preachers sometimes refer to passages such as Ephesians 4:29, translated in various versions as "let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth" or "let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth." "Swearing is a venial sin, and a venial sin weakens charity," argues Dan John, director of religious education for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. Foul language "weakens the layers of community," he says. If no one is offended, "that's a sign that the bonds of community are being weakened. If you're not offended by offensive things, then we have a problem." Are there exceptions for example, solitary swearing? "I'd hate to go to hell and find out I'm there on a stubbed-toe violation," John says.
Stub-toe swearing Stub-toe swearing comes from a different part of the brain than normal speech, scientists say. Washington University theoretical neurobiologist William H. Calvin, author of "A Brain for All Seasons," explains that "emphatic exclamations of all sorts seem to be coming from the supplementary motor area, in the midline of the brain above the corpus callosum. That's also true of many animal vocalizations." What Calvin calls "novel strings of words our short and long sentences" are created in a different part of the brain. "People can have strokes that disrupt novel sorts of language (i.e. aphasia) while still being able to swear like sailors. It can be very distressing to their families." Calvin said he doesn't know if anyone has studied whether someone who tries to use faux swear words would utter the more forbidden f-word following a stroke, or whether "fetch" would still be satisfying enough.
Good one. I like that.
A carload of kids went by, saw my friend and did not see the trooper, and shouted out, "Hey Dude! It must suck to be you!"
The trooper said, "If you have this under control, I think I shall take off, and give them a ration of crap, OK?"
Fellow came to Work laughing about it.
Given the current rate of rape, STDs, and pregnancy...she may just have a point.
Yeah, but are you fixin' to do sumpin?
All words are not equal - words mean things. . .putting them on the typical equal playing field of Liberal life disempowers a language just as equal playing fields disempower individuals.
For example, awful once meant, and in fact is still defined in my dictionary (among other definitions) as filling one with terror or dread or worthy of solomn respect. Most contemporary use of the word, however, is in a much more trivial framework, as in "that was an awful cup of coffee."
Mary Poppins' word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious will probably soon mean not bad.
The word "Hero" is lost and there is no substitute. "Hero" has come to mean anyone we like, leaving no word for TRUE Heros. Thus, there is no ability in English to differentiate and discern.
This is true for many other words such as "Impact" and "Overview."
"Can you imagine Mother Teresa saying, 'Hey, that really sucks, I am so pissed off,'" Johnson asks.Gonna use it with my kids.
"Son of a gun" used to be an "awful" expression. It was a reference to the locale in which a bastard child's life was conceived, the gun decks of ships at port. S.O.B. took over, but that's lost it's edge, too. I mean, here's a clear case of the democratization of words: so many S.O.B.'s out there these days...
My kids' mother let them buy the PG-version of an Eminem album. It was ridiculous, reminded of a most sublime free speech protest from 1924, a little book called "Mother Goose - Censored," and went like this:
Old Mother Goose, whenAnd so on, through all the nursery rhymes.
She wanted to ________
Would _______a fat goose
Or a very fine gander.
Jacke and Jill went up the hill
Jack fell down adn broke his ______,
And Jill came tumbling after.
So I bought the kids the uncut Eminem, and told them, "Don't you dare use these words yourself." My son took to repeating the bad words with their more, uh, formal versions, "excrement!" "Fornication!" etc. It's funny!
Now, if I can just remove "this" and "like" from their vocabulary....
you said, "it's all just so gay..."
What does that statement mean and why do people say it?
Soon, those will be said in the same vein we used to hear "nigger", "spic", "kike", "whore"...
That's great, now even "f**k" has this "gravitas" thing. I infer that back in the 2000 campaign if GW Bush really wanted to bolster his Gravitas Quotient someone should have told him to pepper his speeches with the f-word.
Much is made here and elsewhere about parents' roles in teaching their children the skills and values they'll need in life later on, but I've never read anything about grandparents' roles in the process. In my case, my grandfather (an oil tanker captain) taught me that profanity, while being a valid tool in communication, is like the paintbrush to the painter - one requires training and talent to employ it artfully. His most important lessons were taught to me while on the golf course - it was there I learned that if one truly wishes to be a vulgarian he must have the temperment of the artist.
Reflecting on the education he gave me, I never understood why some people would be so artless in their use of our culture's treasured four-lettered words. It's akin to crying wolf when every other word is f-this and f-that. What will they do when the situation arises when the f-word is truly called for, and it needs to carry a punch? They have no go-to option, because they've all but worn out their vocabulary. Listeners will remark "Oh, he's just saying 'f**k', but he doesn't really mean it - he says that all the time." Innocent blood may be spilled while he lamely fumbles for a substitute to "f**k" where none exists - it has been the best our culture can do. For these people I feel truly sorry they didn't have the upbringing that I did.
Take the rules of this forum for example! It is expressly noted that no profanity,gutteral language,racial slurs or any un-savory language is allowed, yet the moderators always seem to allow deviation of these establised rules. I have called and made reference on numerous occasions about this growing problem in our nation and socially astute people are in high awareness of the slackness in applying and regulating what gets out on this forum.
This growing national experiential phenomen grows ever more present in the liberated environment of modern America, so the moderators on forums where this violates the established rules must be quick to delete the objectional material before it gets posted otherwise they themselves become part of the problem by allowing it to linger. Your challenge is still before you and unfortunately always will be!
Not true. Profanity CAN be crutch of conversational cripple, but I know great many fine conversationalists who pepper comments with profanity.
You are right. And what an outstanding example of "word devaluation."
Hero, of Greek origin, is defined thus in my dictionary... and note that each of the definitions is a step down:
2. any man admired for his courage, nobility, or exploits, especially in war; as, Washington is a national hero.
3. any person admired for his qualities or achievements and regarded as an ideal or model.
4. the central male chacter in a novel, play, poem, etc., with whom the reader is supposed to sympathize; protagonist: often opposed to villain.
Guess we'll just have to come up with a new word for hero.
I've learned to tune out most profanity... they ARE just words, even though I find them distasteful and disrespectful.
But- if I'm around friends or family who blaspheme, I will kindly let them know that that's where I draw the line. It's working to some extent- a friend of mine who was very fond of saying G-D and J-C has almost completely stopped. It does disturb me, however, that those two profanities are given a free pass on TV.
The drovers of the American west cattle drives in the 19th century would heartily agree with you if anyone should refer to them as "cowboys".
"Talk low, talk slow, and don't say too much."
That's a good question. When I grew up (1970s), the word was the worst possible for my parents. You didn't say it. Other words weren't as much a problem, because they weren't used as much. We were just starting to separate "suck" from its implied sexual meaning, and we were starting to say it in normal conversation. For my parents, that's all it meant. For my kids now, it means "bad," and no more.
My parents used "son of a gun." They didn't know what it meant.
In some places, saying that something is "so gay" is so five minutes ago.
"When a word loses its specificity it loses its meaning."My 1958 Webster's lists "quote" as a noun only as a colloquialism. My 1967 Random House dictionary gives it full "noun" status. Anybody use the word "quotation" any more? A piece of the language died.
You complain that "suck" no longer means its meaning. Having been removed of it, it is no longer an epithet. So if "mean people suck," so what? (I know a couple nice people that do that, too.)
Every ancient culture attributed magical powers to words. The Bible tells of God 'speaking' the world into existence. Pagans believe that words can cast spells. And system programmers still worship at the command-line prompt.