Nearly three-quarters of Americans questioned last week — 74 percent — said they encounter profanity in public frequently or occasionally, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll. Two-thirds said they think people swear more than they did 20 years ago. And as for, well, the gold standard of foul words, a healthy 64 percent said they use the F-word — ranging from several times a day (8 percent) to a few times a year (15 percent) […]

Younger people admit to using bad language more often than older people; they also encounter it more and are less bothered by it. The AP-Ipsos poll suggested that 62 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds acknowledged swearing in conversation at least a few times a week, compared to 39 percent of those 35 and older.

More women than men said they encounter people swearing more now than 20 years ago — 75 percent, compared to 60 percent. Also, more women said they were bothered by profanity — 74 percent at least some of the time — than men (60 percent.) And more men admitted to swearing: 54 percent at least a few times a week, compared to 39 percent of women.

My own feelings on the issue are divided. On the one hand, as an iconoclast, I think the fearful marginalization of arbitrary signifiers is ridiculous bordering on supersticious. Is there is a reason that f-u-c-k is heinous and something random like p-l-i-t-z isn’t? Sure, if we look at the word “fuck” etymologically, we’ll see that it comes from historical precursors inherently violent or pugilistic1, but effective usage has largely erased the word’s relevant meaning. I wager that it’s used far more often as a simple interjection or filler adjective than it is as a synonym for intercourse.

But this isn’t merely about “fuck”: it’s about profanity in general, an amorphous concept at best because of changing cultural mores. In the age of Comstock, just saying “thigh” was considered scandalous. Nowadays, those conservative about language will complain that TV forces it upon us, that we’ve become desensitized to it, and of course we have. It’s part of the natural evolution of language. My suspicion is that the original Swedish focka or proposed Latin futuo didn’t have this connotation, and in the future, “fuck” will be an archaic signifier that we only refer to in etymology dictionaries.

Here’s the thing: language is incredibly powerful, and it’s inherently capacious enough to be inflammatory, celebritory, and anything in between. However, while it’s only natural that we place value judgements on language—that, for instance, copulate is “better” than fuck, or any one of a number of adjectives are better than fucking—I strikes me as absurd to make a certain subset of arbitrary sounds commensurate to physical violence or what-have-you.

Our prohibitions against racial slurs—”nigger,” for instance—is equally arbitrary, I think, but understandable insofar as the evolution of the original Latin niger into a bastardized slur is all too fresh, as is the concomitant abuse of the racial group it referred to. We don’t say “nigger” anymore2 because we understand that the word is the creation or appropriation of a history we’d just as soon forget. Can we say the same thing about “shit”? “Ass”? “Bitch,” “cunt,” “bastard,” “damn,” or any of the legion of “inappropriate” words that our government strives to protect us from?

Certainly not, but at the same time as we may undercut the moralist objections to profanity, we may bring up others.

Just ask Joe Cormack. Like any bartender, Cormack, of Fort Dodge, Iowa, hears a lot of talk. He’s not really offended by bad language — heck, he uses it himself every day. But sometimes, a customer will unleash the F-word so many times, Cormack just has to jump in.

“Do you have any idea how many times you’ve just said that?” he reports saying from time to time. “I mean, if I take that out of your vocabulary, you’ve got nothin’!”

I know people who use “fuck” in the same way people seem to use “like” nowadays. Swear words derive part of their impact from their taboo (that is another topic), and part of their taboo from their scarcity (in “polite” discourse, anyway). If every third word is “fuck,” then the word has lost its effectiveness. I don’t suggest the constant repetition of any word except articles, but much of the sub-literate populace in America uses profanity as a substitute for real communication. Perhaps they think that enough verbal “punches” will get across what their diction won’t. If there’s any negative impact of profanity on children, it has to do with their dwindling education and not with corrupting them, despite what concerned housewives and watchdog groups may want you to believe.

Either you respect that swear words predicate their power on the taboo and understand that this is a delicate balance likely to remain indefinitely, albeit with different words, or you propose that language be homogenized and abridged until there’s no room for differently-connotated synonyms to a normative word.

Me? Aw hell, fuck that damn shit.

  1. Source: Etymology Online Dictionary and lectures by Dr. Marcia Smith Marzec[]
  2. Except black people—in the form of “nigga”—whose usage I still have a problem with[]
§1066 · March 30, 2006 · Tags: , , , ·

6 Comments to “$%*&#!”

  1. S4R says:

    “I wager that it’s used far more often as a simple interjection or filler adjective than it is as a synonym for intercourse.”
    There’s no doubt in my mind this is true. I’ll make more than a wager.

    “I don’t suggest the constant repetition of any word except articles, but much of the sub-literate populace in America uses profanity as a substitute for real communication.”
    When did stupid people become “sub-literate populace?” :p At any rate, I don’t think it’s so much substitution as it is an escape from, or an inability to have real or topical discussion. Another component of profanity would be relief of stress.

  2. Ben says:

    In my mind, there is a definite distinction between “subliterate” and “stupid.” I know plenty of seemingly intelligent people who can’t speak or write with anything approaching efficacy.

  3. S4R says:

    I’d be surprised if I was the only one who thought it read like a euphemism for stupid people, but I see your distinction.

  4. Lina says:

    I have another story about cursing that I didn’t want to put on my blog because I didn’t want to offend the subject’s sister, who reads it.

    The mother, Sheri, of Meagan (the girl afraid of “fuck”) totally took the cake for most retarded comment of the night. She said that “snap” is her most hated curse word, and that when she substitute teaches, her students know better than to say that word (oooooh). And I kinda looked around the room, dumbfounded, and realized no one else was going to say anything so it was incumbent upon me. :p

    “Snap?”
    “That’s their word for ‘shit’! You know, ‘Aw, snap!’ It means ‘shit.'”
    “Um. No, it doesn’t. It means ‘wow.'”
    “No, it means ‘shit’!”
    “…OK. Well, I still think (know) you’re wrong, but assuming you’re right, isn’t the fact that they’re using a substitute for “shit” something to applaud (in your mind)?”
    “No, because they mean ‘shit.'”
    “Does it bother you when people say ‘golly gee’?”
    “No, not at all.”

  5. Ben says:

    Then nevermind the parochial education: it’s apparently genetic.

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. However, for fear of saying something really sub-literate, I’m going to be silent now and go about my gotdamned business. :)

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