3Qs: The evolution of profanity

Nov 28, 2012 by Linda Ogbevoen
Instead of saying “Pardon my French” when we curse, we should be saying, “Pardon my Old English,” says Heather Littlefield, head advisor of the linguistics program at Northeastern. Credit: istockphoto

#@&#! Pro­fanity has long been a key ele­ment of Amer­ican cul­ture. We're pro­fane when we're frus­trated or telling a story or even when we're watching TV, but how do words get labeled as pro­fane and where do they come from? Here, Heather Lit­tle­field, asso­ciate aca­d­emic spe­cialist and head advisor of the lin­guis­tics pro­gram in the Col­lege of Sci­ence, weighs in on society's "bad words."

Words are considered empty symbols until we attach meanings to them. How and why do certain words get labeled as profanity?

There are a number of ways in which become "bad" words, but it usu­ally takes time for words to become taboo, or pro­fane. I'll try to keep my exam­ples clean in this dis­cus­sion, but the process is the same for the really bad words, too.

For instance, many of our worst "four-​​letter words" in Eng­lish stem from the dif­fer­ences between the French-​​speaking nobility who ruled Eng­land fol­lowing the Norman Con­quest of 1066. The English-​​speaking peas­ants absorbed some of the words that the nobles were using, but gave them a high-​​class spin. So while the French were refer­ring to their houses ("maisons" in French), the Eng­lish peas­ants adopted the word with the meaning of a very large, impres­sive house ("man­sion"), and the Eng­lish word "house" was left to mean some­thing more basic. This hap­pened with cer­tain body parts, for example. So instead of saying "Pardon my French" when we curse, we should more rightly be saying, "Pardon my Old English."

One typ­ical process is that the word grad­u­ally becomes con­t­a­m­i­nated, neces­si­tating another euphemism to take its place. For example, the word "toilet," which orig­i­nally referred to a dressing table cov­ering, came to refer to the room where the chamber pot is kept. Then, grad­u­ally, the term came to feel dirty and people needed a new, clean way to refer to this same place. So they started to use "bath­room" (whether there is a bathtub or not). But then after time this, too, became more con­t­a­m­i­nated, and another euphemism was cre­ated: "ladies' room."

Do profane words carry special weight? Would curses lose their appeal if stigma were not attached to using them?

Yes! If they weren't con­sid­ered extremely bad or dirty, then they would have no power or emphatic force what­so­ever. It would be like trying to swear with a word like "flower." Can you imagine, "Oh, flower! I broke the window!"? It sounds funny, because it doesn't have that extremely neg­a­tive meaning for us. Sim­i­larly, second-​​language learners often get into trouble because they learn a few swear words in the lan­guage they are studying and then they use those words too casu­ally when they are trav­eling or living abroad. While the words are very pro­fane for the native speakers of the lan­guage, the learner doesn't feel that same sense of force—they don't feel as bad as the swear words in the learner's native language.

Is profanity becoming more accepted by society or is it still considered taboo?

Norms of using pro­fanity really vary widely and depend on a range of fac­tors. For example, regional dialects have dif­ferent norms for the use of pro­fanity. Now that I live in Boston, I've absorbed these local norms and I find that when I return to visit my home state of Idaho, I shock people with my casual and more fre­quent use of pro­fanity. The speaker's gender and age can also play a role: Women gen­er­ally use less and milder pro­fanity than men, and there are times of life when speakers use more or less pro­fanity. For example, people may make more use of pro­fanity in their col­lege years, but then reduce their rates of cursing as they take on pro­fes­sional roles and become parents.

And speakers often have dif­ferent views of others' use of curse words. For instance, people are more likely to have neg­a­tive views of women's cursing than men's cursing. And, of course, con­text plays a role: Think of telling a story to a group of friends at a bar on Friday night after work and telling that same story to your grand­mother. Odds are that your use of pro­fanity will be greater in the former context.

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not rated yet Nov 28, 2012
There is no mention of the fact that many really "bad" words are monosyllabic and end in a hard consonant: s**t, f**k, c**t, d**k, and c**p come to mind. Monosyllables ending in softer consonants such as p**s, d**n, and h**l are somehow less offensive, and less gratifying to utter.
not rated yet Nov 29, 2012
But you said (E#$##$ ... no! I said #ES##s! Don't ever misquote me~!