On Cursing

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!’‘MOTHER, WILFRED WROTE A BAD WORD!’
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. 

Mark Steyn:
 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.”


Texan99 said...

Not having what you would call a polite vocabulary myself, I approach things this way: Around people I think I can trust not to become upset, I consider fair game any rude epithet or scatological or sexual reference except one that is a misdirected insult. By that, I mean: if I'm really upset with someone for voting Democrat, I won't beat around the bush and discharge my need for an insult by calling him a "faggot" or "kike" instead. If I objected to a woman's homosexuality (which I don't), I might very well call her a dyke, but I wouldn't call her that merely because I was angry about her latest ruling from the bench. I don't call women dumb blondes even if I think they're dumb, because I don't think they're dumb as a result of either their XX chromosomes or the color of their hair. For the same reason, I wouldn't refer to the President's race (with a polite word or otherwise) if the thing that was irritating me was his policies. I content myself with calling him a stinking liar, which is more to the point.

Circumlocutions don't do that much for me, whether their purpose is to obscure an uncomfortable reality with a polite euphemism, or to drum up support for my position by pointing to my antagonist's membership in some target group or another that has nothing to do with my actual complaint.

Cass said...

I'm not big on name calling, period.

I don't understand the need. I am totally uninterested in calling gay men "fags", lesbian woman "dykes", blacks "niggers". I don't understand what that contributes to the conversation. That said, I've used the "n-word" in several posts, simply because supposedly it's taboo... for some folks. I don't think I've ever used it gratuitously, or against anyone.

Or, what Tex said.

Grim said...

What I really liked about the article -- aside from the insight into the way our ideas have evolved over time, in this case our ideas about what constitutes the obscene -- was the demonstration that people haven't actually changed at all. They like to look down on their Victorian ancestors as prissy and uptight, and mock them for it; but when it comes to their own sense of the obscene, today's upper-class will bend over backwards not to speak the offensive words.

As for how I use obscenities, I tend to use the old Victorian ones too -- usually thoughtlessly, as for example if I have dropped something heavy on my toe.

Anonymous said...

Swear words are like chili peppers. Used sparingly, they get people's attention when "Pardon me, Matt, but I would appreciated your not moving the propeller again wile I'm working on timing the magnetos" is not effective. Use too many and everything blurs and people get numb.