Profanity through the ages has had varied meanings

| March 2, 2023 | 0 Comments

  In January, an employment judge in the United Kingdom presiding over a case of unfair dismissal ruled that using the F-word in the workplace was now “commonplace” and that its use in a particularly “tense” meeting did not “carry the shock value [it] might have done in another time.” Indeed, many have observed this generational gap in the use of profanity — a 2016 Reuters poll found only 14 percent of Americans “never” swear in conversation, while 64 percent of respondents thought that people use swear words “more often” than 20 years ago.

The term “profane” comes from the Latin profanus, meaning “outside the temple,” and it was used for centuries simply to describe things of a secular nature. Its synonyms “swear” and “curse” also trace their origins to ideas about evil and impiety, which were the main cultural taboos for god-fearing Europeans during the Middle Ages. It was a time when privacy was a privilege enjoyed only by the upper classes; with the majority of society living in close quarters, it was customary to bathe, sleep and relieve oneself in group settings and often in the nude. Nudity, therefore, was not taboo. It was only until later, with the emergence of a middle class in Europe, that nudity became a source of embarrassment, and in turn, words that had previously been used inoffensively to describe certain anatomical parts and bodily functions took on the indecent inflections many of them hold today.

Despite it being deemed rude or offensive in certain contexts, even some of the most civil-tongued among us may find cathartic or defiant pleasure in using profanity every now and then. Seductive and dangerous, profane words inspire impish young adults to try out their first words in a foreign language. As intensifiers, they can convey the sheer force of an emotion or opinion. And they’re just what the doctor ordered after stubbing one’s toe. (Quite literally — a 2009 study by researchers Stephens, Atkins and Kingston found that swearing actually helps relieve the effects of physical pain.)

Though the use of profanity is generally not penalized by law, a foulmouthed utterance may cost you fines up to $500 and potentially jail time on the beachfront boardwalks of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The city raked in over $22,000 in 2017 by issuing citations for the use of “lewd, obscene or profane” language in public.

The concealment of profanity is a considered art unto itself, from a solitary, well-placed asterisk to the instantly recognizable 1 kilohertz “bleep” tone used to replace offensive remarks on radio and TV. Grawlixes are another means to insinuate foul language while staying within the confines of common decency. Predominantly used in cartoons, a grawlix is a combination of typographic symbols — like the at symbol (@), dollar sign ($), ampersand (&), percent sign (%) and exclamation point (!) — that form an unpronounceable word or phrase (such as “@$&%!”) used liberally by some of comic books’ more short-tempered characters.

“Minced oaths” are useful proxies to avoid potentially blasphemous language; including euphemistic expressions like “gosh,” “heck” and “darn,” they sanitize some of the most prevalent curses in our lexicon. One of my favorites, “’snails,” was coined in the 14th century by John Hayward to imply the vulgarity “God’s nails,” referring to the nails on Christ’s cross.

Some measures that have been implemented to censor “bad words” are effective to a fault: In 1996, residents of the town of Scunthorpe, England, were prevented from creating AOL accounts because the internet provider’s indecency filter flagged the obscenity contained in the town’s name. The accidental blocking of innocuous phrases in digital spaces is so common even today that it’s been designated the “Scunthorpe problem.”

With the inherent allure of that which society deems off-limits, some fear what may come to replace our current swear words if they lose their taboo status. Steering clear of derogatory slurs and epithets based on race, gender, disability or economic status, I propose we get creative and sensationalize life’s more quotidian no-nos. With any luck, 20 years from now, “bad tipper” and “parking spot thief” will be spelled with asterisks.

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Category: Entertainment

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