Saturday, September 21, 2019

Here’s Why Profanity Will Always Be Used

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Have you ever noticed many curses or profane words are four letters long?

Think about it.  What quickly comes to mind?  

Forgive my vulgarity, but this is a post about language and we can’t be afraid to use real words.  Keep in mind they are all in the dictionary.  If you guessed fuck, cock, tits, twat, shit, or cunt among others, you scored well.

So what spurred our unfamily-like discussion here?  Well.  I just read an insightful, provocative, and powerful book.  What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, And Ourselves, penned by Benjamin K. Bergen (Basic Books).

The history behind profanity extends back to the beginnings of language.  It’s only natural that we have words that offend us, because words reflect actions, feelings, and ideas – and some will annoy, threaten, anger, or entertain us to different degrees.  Comedians view language differently from the clergy and kids speak differently than adults, but language exists for all to use or abuse.

This book attempts to take a deep dive into how and why we use curse words and how attempts to ban them are futile.  It examines the taboos of English, looking at things like a linguist, psychologist, and neuroscientist, all wrapped into one, would.

Our language is under fire by the PC police while at the same time social media allows us unfettered access to spew all kinds of words across the globe, 24/7.

It is amazing how words can trigger certain emotions, ideas, even actions.  We have our fighting words, our terms of endearments, our business speak, our political discourse (except for Trump), our school conversations, and so on.  The right words for the right setting.  Or is that no longer the case?  Should it even be the case?

“Words, in short, have the power by their mere utterance to affect how people feel and how they feel about you,” writes Bergen.  “Being curse-less has consequences.  It affects the things you can do with the language – the work you can do with words.”

His book takes a serious turn when it examines whether words should be banned or how such a thing could actually happen.  He concludes it should not and could not occur – but that doesn’t stop people from trying often giving the hated words even more currency by the users.

Are words really bad in themselves – or is it what a particular word represents that we hate so much?  We can't unthink things, can we?  We can’t cover up history, right?  Why do we try to go through life as if we could live in a perfect world if only we eradicated all bad words?  This just isn’t realistic or even an honest approach to life.

Oddly, the F-word ranked only No. 15 on a large study of most offensive words that was cited in the book.  The N-word was No. 1, followed by the C-word.  Whores tied for No. 10, yet Hooker was No. 31.  So what should we conclude about words that offend?

1.      Most relate to sex -- the act of, sexual organs, sexual preference – clit, slut, screw, dyke.
2.      Many are terms of prejudice – kike, chink, spic.
3.      They seek to put people down – moron, loser, retard.

This means that regardless of what the word is, the intent behind it is to ridicule, demean, express hate, and to shame others.  

No matter what word you fill in the blank, there will always be people saying negative, threatening, ignorant things to another, so to focus on specific words is pointless.  There’s nothing inherently evil above any one word -- only about how it’s applied and the intention of the use behind it.

That said, every single word on the list of offensive words could, under the right circumstance, be acceptable to use, whether it’s used in jest or between friends/lovers who choose to use the words differently than how they are normally employed.  At the very least, for historical or legal purposes, we must use the actual words when discussing events and not seek to sidestep them.  Our language, for better or worse, reflects who we are.  We can’t ban humanity, can we?

Here are some selected excerpts from the book:

Bad Language
“This is a book about bad language.  Not the tepid pseudo-profanities like damn and boobs that punctuate broadcast television.  I mean the big hitters.  Like fuck.... These words are vulgar.  They’re shocking.  They’re offensive.  They’re hurtful.

“But they’re also important.  These are the words people use to express the strongest human emotions – in moments of anger, of fear, and of passion.  They’re the words with the greatest capacity to inflict emotional pain and incite violent disagreement.  They’re the words that provoke the most repressive regulatory reactions from the state in the form of censorship and legislation.  In short, bad words are powerful – emotionally, physiologically, psychologically, and socially.

“And that makes them worth trying to understand.” 

Profanity Defined
“The word profanity originally referred to the first group.  In Latin profanus literally means “outside the temple,” denoting words or acts that desecrate the holy.  For some people, the use of religious words in secular ways constitutes blasphemy – a sin against religious doctrine – and this is the pathway that makes those terms taboo.  The names of religious figures, like Jesus Christ, Jehovah, or Mohammad, are easy fodder.  So are aspects of religious dogma.  In English, we have a few of these, like holy, hell, God, damn, and, of course, Goddamn.”

Profanity -- Origins
“The second place English profanity comes from is language relating to sex and sexual acts.  This includes the acts themselves (fuck, for instance), sex organs involved in those acts (pussy and cock), people who perform those acts (cocksucker and motherfucker), and artifacts and effluvia related to those acts (spooge, dildo, and so on).  So the second prong of our profanity principle is sex.

“Third is language involving other bodily functions – things that come out of your body, the process of getting them out of your body, and the parts of your body that they come out of.  This includes robust cohorts of words describing feces, urine, and vomit, among others, as well, of course, as the body parts associated with these substances and the artifacts used in those body parts; upkeep, like douchebag, and so on.

“And finally there are the slurs.  Among the most offensive words on each of the lists (when the lists saw fit to ask about them) are terms like (N-word), faggot, retard, and the like.  These words are offensive by dint of their derogatory reference to people based on some group that they’re perceived as belonging to, defined in terms of sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, and so on.  New terms like this are developing all the time - relatively recent additions to English include tard (from retard) and sperg (derived from Asperger’s syndrome).”

Is Profanity Universal?
“In what ways are the 7,000 languages of the world similar, and in what ways are they different? Both questions have fascinated linguists and philosophers for millennia, for different reasons.  Universal features found to hold in all languages reveal something about what it is to be human.  If all humans do something – whether it’s art, music, math, or some aspect of language, that universal behavior must be due to either some shared common experience or some trait possessed by all humans, transcending cultural idiosyncrasies.  Perhaps, sometimes, this stems from our genetic endowment.

“There doesn’t appear to be much about profanity that is truly universal – shared without exception by all languages and cultures.  It’s not just that the specific words are different.  As we’ve seen, the differences are much deeper than that.  Some cultures have rich and deeply codified systems of profanity, like English or Russian.  Others, like Japanese, don’t really have anything like the same category of words.”

“But trying to ban language is more than just ineffectual.  The practice is actually its own worst enemy.  Here’s what I mean.

“We know that taboo words aren’t taboo because they’re intrinsically bad.  We’ve seen over the course of this book that profane words are just words; they’re made up of sounds and enter into similar (although not always identical) grammatical patterns to other words.  There isn’t a fixed set of profanity in a language – words meander into and out of taboo-ness.  Over time, words move fluidly from banal to profane and back again – think about the histories of cock and swive (the now deceased, archaic predecessor to fuck). Nor is there anything unique or defining about what taboo words mean; even if they tend to draw from certain semantic domains, they can denote the very same things as mundane words  like penis and copulate). And in fact, a culture doesn’t even have to have taboo words if historical vicissitudes haven’t conspired to give it any.  “In other words, there’s nothing deterministic about any particular words having to be profane in any given language at any specific time.

“And that means that our beliefs about profanity are largely a social construct.  The same word can provoke radically different reactions in different cultures or at different times.”

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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog ©2019. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource.” He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America.

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