What the F***?

Apr 15, 2010 by

Recently, California state legislators came up with a new initiative: a “Cuss Free Week” aimed at reducing profanities in public places (I guess, budget concerns are not pressing enough?!). But maybe such efforts are just in time? Vice President Joe Biden was recently caught on camera using an f-word in a private aside to Barak Obama; in 2004 Vice President Cheney used a form of the same word on the Senate floor to tell Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont what to do to himself. In 2008 a debate ensued in the media about the way New York Times reported the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s unguarded comments about Senator Barack Obama that were also accidentally picked up by a microphone. And even films such as the Austin Powers francise spin jokes around profanities like “Number Two”.

Have people’s attitudes changed toward what is considered socially acceptable language? And is the Web making things worst by creating an atmosphere where people’s identities are shielded so that they feel they can use words they might not have said out loud? Is it time for police to come out with soap to clean those potty mouths?

In the words of John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English”:

In a hatless America of T-shirts and visible underwear, where what were once written speeches are now baggy “talks” and we barely flinch to see nudity and simulated copulation in movies, what would be strange is if people weren’t increasingly comfortable using cuss words in public.

But it’s not just our attitudes towards “bad” words that change. The words themselves change too. According to Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and an acclaimed author, “the expression of intense emotion… [is] one reason profanity is used — and will continue to be”. By their nature, swear words are linked to emotion in a visceral way. But that link wears off as time goes by.

The same is true of another category of words, called euphemisms. The term comes from the Greek for “beautiful speak”: these are words and expressions considered “nice” and “polite” and used to express offensive, unpleasant or otherwise troublesome concepts. Euphemisms have been with us since the dawn of time, but their nature and sphere of application have changed. First, there were euphemisms for scary animals. For example, in many Indo-European languages the word for ‘bear’ is a former euphemism (which lost its euphemistic edge with time): in Slavic languages the root medued- comes from ‘honey knower’, while in Germanic languages —- including English -— the words for ‘bear’ are derived from the color brown. In the Middle Ages, the big area for taboo words and euphemisms was religion (think of “Egads” for “Ye Gods”); in Victorian age, it was sex (hence, dark meat and white meat to replace ‘leg’ and ‘breast’ at the dinner table). But now we no longer wear corsets, but cherish intimate details from the lives of rich and famous and “barely flinch to see nudity and simulated copulation in movies” (again, McWhorter’s words). Hence, the main taboo is no longer sex, but race and other aspects of political correctness. But the word’s emotional content — what linguists call “connotation” — is as important as ever. Remember the following dialog from “Die another day”?

James Bond: I’m looking for a North Korean.
Raul: Tourist?
James Bond: Terrorist.
Raul: One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

To recap, both “nice” words (euphemisms) and “naughty” words (f-words and such) lose their emotional edge and seem no longer that nice or that naughty. Which together with our changing social attitudes makes words that were once considered taboo acceptable — almost!


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