The Enduring Power of Profanity

The Enduring Energy of Profanity


As a linguist, the examine of phrases is par for the course. Whereas phrases like zoombombing and finna might appeal to quite a lot of discover by way of what’s well timed or trending, some phrases, just like the f-word or insults like whore and bastard, appear to have stood the check of time. Why do we discover that profanity has lengthy been half and parcel of what we do with language?

A taboo subject

Profanity is unnerving and noticeable as a result of it usually offers with cultural taboos. Swearing and cursing stand up round matters that make us uncomfortable or that society deems unacceptable. In all cultures, sure topics — usually these related to faith, social stigmas like illegitimacy, physique features and sexual exercise — are off-limits as a result of they’re thought-about sacred, disgusting or derogatory, although what constitutes a societal taboo varies by time and by place. Through the use of language which evokes or takes on these matters, it attracts consideration to the speaker, which is usually the purpose.

Wikimedia Commons

An quaint ‘swearing’ in

Supply: Wikimedia Commons

Although all are seen as offensive, swearing, cursing and obscenity are literally distinct types of ‘unhealthy’ language. For example, swearing traditionally solely referred to when individuals, centuries in the past, used God’s title within the taking of a proper oath. Based on Geoffrey Hughes’ in his Encyclopedia of Swearing, such swearing was a part of common authorized and financial exchanges till, throughout the Center Ages, it turned related to the irreverent use of God’s title outdoors of sanctioned oath-swearing.

Cursing, however, was extra in regards to the intentional wishing of evil or hurt towards somebody. Obscenity was mainly utilizing express, immoral and titillating phrases, however usually not involving both God or the satan.

Through the Center Ages, immorality and doubt forged on one’s paternal lineage had been fairly a bit extra offensive than something associated to excrement. So, in accordance with Melissa Mohr’s ebook Holy Sh*t detailing the historical past of swearing, the time of being offended by issues like profane poop terminology didn’t come round till the 18th and nineteenth centuries.

A Good Golly Gee

Immediately, the road between swearing, cursing and obscenity is considerably blurred, with most individuals seeing all three falling collectively underneath the bigger rubric of swear phrases or profanity. And whereas quite a lot of our fashionable unhealthy phrases revolve round intercourse or unmentionable physique elements, this can be a pretty fashionable listing of issues we get nasty about. Within the late Center Ages and Early Fashionable Interval, sacred or spiritual blasphemy was thought-about the peak of linguistic sinfulness, and people hell-bent on utilizing it tended to seek out themselves dealing with not simply condemnation, however usually additionally laws.

As time went on, religious-based profanity misplaced a little bit of its zing as a lethal sin, resulting in a shift within the forms of most popular profane matters. In a 2019 examine, linguists Sali Tagliamonte and Bridget Jankowski tracked a considerable lower in using euphemisms for God’s title (comparable to gosh and jeez) occurring in a set of Canadian speech because the nineteenth century. As a substitute, non-euphemistic expressive kinds like Oh my God!, Thank God, or simply God have risen over the previous 200 years.

Energy and the profane

Such findings counsel that using euphemistic phrases like Golly which was pushed by sturdy social and non secular disapproval of ‘useless’ swearing is not mandatory. Extra permissive attitudes and recognition of the social and expressive worth of colloquial and slang speech has risen sharply over the course of the twentieth century as societal mores have grow to be extra relaxed. Expressions with God as in My God now serve to speak emotional depth reasonably than profanity.

In reality, the speedy rise in using non-euphemistic phrases for swearing means that these expressions have grow to be semantically bleached, or misplaced the affiliation they initially carried, to be extra simply methods to get throughout secular shock or emotion. Such a that means loss will not be uncommon, even for profanity. For instance, Hughes cites modern-day drat as being a shortened type of God rot as in “‘God rot your bones!,’ a curse that actually presents our fashionable delicate drat in a way more ominous gentle.

In brief, spiritual blasphemy is out, at the very least by way of being noticeably offensive, and sh*t and intercourse are in. Immediately, swearing will not be solely much less prone to land you in hassle with the church and the legislation, however would possibly even function a cathartic outlet.

Based on Mohr in her ebook Holy Sh*t, it appears there was a rise in profanity after WWI and WWII as a result of swearing was nothing in comparison with the horrors troopers noticed throughout the struggle. Saying powerfully unhealthy phrases helped them take care of intense experiences. They, in flip, introduced this linguistic prowess dwelling to their households who additionally embraced this new freedom of expression.

So, although sh*t and f*ck could also be what will get tossed round extra as we speak, what drives using such language is far the identical because it has at all times been — the facility of transgressing social conventions to say that which shouldn’t be mentioned. And although it could appear that offensive language is extra prevalent than ever, those that strolled the streets named gropecuntlane and pissynglane in thirteenth and 14th century London would possibly very properly disagree.


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