Warning: this post contains profanity (duh).

William Safire writes about profanity in his On Language column in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. It’s a topic I always found fascinating. In particular, he focuses on President Bush’s preference for the words “darn” and “heck” (he opens the article with the classic “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” quote. I personally would have gone with “My Darn Pet Goat”).

He points out that “darn” and “heck” were invented as softer alternatives to “damn” and “hell”, back when “hell was Hell, the place where you burned throughout eternity”. Not that it’s not thought of that way today by many, but certainly people who take damnation and hell literally are going to be much more sensitive to the words. Since Bush tends to ally with the Religious Right, it’s not surprising that he’s going to use the softer, more “secular” words. On a side note, he mentions that “tarnation” comes from “eternal damnation”. And they used that word in Looney Toons!

All well and good, but profanity always interested me on a deeper level. What’s it really all about? As far as I can see, there are two kinds – “curses”/insults (like “Go to hell” or “You bastard!”) and bathroom/bedroom words (I’m sure you don’t need me to come up with examples there) What I find interesting is that in the latter category, the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable seems to be mostly arbitrary. The kids’ book “Everybody Poops” would probably not be as popular with young parents if it was called “Everybody S–ts”. But why not? What is it about one term for excrement that makes it “OK” and another that makes it shocking? Your guess is as good as mine.

Of course, when it comes to s-e-x, every word there is taboo, and elicits some sort of emotional reaction, even the word s-e-x itself. The number of euphemisms for that as well as the distance from the original are through the roof – again, you don’t need me to elaborate. I’m sure most of you could come up with at least ten synonyms off the top of your head. Again, why are some better or worse than others? Obviously “making love” is a much healthier, more positive, and more agreeable term than “doing the nasty”, but for the most part, it again seems arbitrary.

For the record, I’m not saying that there’s nothing wrong with profanity, and that you should take your kids to see the next Quentin Tarantino movie. Far from it. There’s definitely something wrong with having your brain focused constantly on what’s between your waist and your thighs (or in my case, shins). But it’s important to approach this soberly, instead of just having a knee-jerk reaction to the fact that one collection of phonemes were used to refer to something instead of another.


p.s. I learned a great new word while writing this – “dysphemism”. It’s the exact opposite of a euphemism. A good example would be “Pass the processed cow lips” instead of “Pass the hot dog”.


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