A new book treats the question of obscene words, noting that just what qualifies as an obscenity has changed a lot over the years. The Medievals weren't shocked by references to bodily functions, including sex, because of the relative lack of privacy at the time; they were shocked by blasphemy, which is why those who wanted to speak an obscenity made some reference to something holy. The Victorians, who had privacy, made a big deal about words that related to sex or scatology.
We're no different, she proves:
The real swear words of our time, she notes, are race- and gender-based epithets, which polite society has banned—words that, indeed, almost define polite society by their absence.‘MOTHER, WILFRED WROTE A BAD WORD!’
THE GRANGER COLLECTION, NEW YORK
And sure enough, the reviewers (especially the British ones) have gleefully put into print all the once-prohibited words they know for fornication and excrement. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, gerunds, even adverbs—all-purpose bits of grammar that seem intended mostly to prove, among the writing classes, that their users want us to admire them for having broken free from the stultifying strictures of the linguistic past. Then, when they reach Mohr’s discussion of racial and sex-preference terms, they suddenly turn into prissy Victorian matrons, clicking their tongues in disapproval. A little euphemism, a lot of typographical gesturing, some elaborate circumlocution—it takes work to review a book about these modern unspeakables and not actually quote them.UPDATE:
Here are two jokes one can no longer tell on American television. But you can still find them in the archives, out on the edge of town, in Sub-Basement Level 12 of the ever-expanding Smithsonian Mausoleum of the Unsayable. First, Bob Hope, touring the world in the year or so after the passage of the 1975 Consenting Adult Sex Bill:
“I’ve just flown in from California, where they’ve made homosexuality legal. I thought I’d get out before they make it compulsory.”