The New York Times Fashion section ran an opinion piece Sunday titled "Longing for a Cuss-Free Zone." Now I don't like profanity in conversation, though I have nothing against it in fiction or in humor. (I often much enjoy off-color jokes, if they're funny, and don't find that the profanity makes them inherently less -- or more -- funny.) But one thing I found interesting about the article is that it didn't really explain why the author longs for a cuss-free zone, or why we should.

So what exactly is wrong with profanity? Let's focus for now on "fuck," "shit," and the like, and set aside both insults and relatively light profanity (such as "damn" and "hell," which are at least pretty light in my big city secular circles); let's also set aside any legal questions about when such speech should be constitutionally protected. Why do I get annoyed -- not tremendously annoyed, but still annoyed -- by hearing a lot of it? Should I be annoyed?

One possible answer is that we shouldn't be annoyed by it. Perhaps we should teach our children not to use it, the theory would go, but only because other people are annoyed by it. Under this theory, the decision to use or not use profanity has become a shibboleth, much like whether one uses "ain't": By listening to whether a person uses profanity you might learn a bit about his social class or his affinity group, and you might want your children to signal membership in a particular class or group. Yet I don't think that's all there is to it.

Likewise, some people suggest that we disapprove of profanity just because we're too Puritanical; if only we realized that there was nothing wrong with sex, or for that matter with excretion, then we wouldn't view "fuck" or "shit" as bad at all.

Another possible answer, which I've heard from some people, is that use of profanity reveals lack of creativity or inarticulateness: If every other word from your mouth is "fucking," that shows that you don't know how to speak in a more interesting and precise way. But I don't think that's right; people's reaction to people who use profanity is quite different (and usually more negative) than their reaction to people who simply speak monotonously, or to people who use imprecise words.

Others say that profanity is wrong because it's vulgar, debasing, dirty, or what have you. But that's just a label or a metaphor -- it doesn't explain why profanity is bad.

Here's my tentative answer (with apologies in advance if it's too obvious): Profanities have historically been ways of conveying anger or contempt. "Fuck," for instance, is often (not always, but often) a reference not just to sex but to sex that involves contempt for one of the participants, and often a reference not to sex at all but simply a signal of anger. The deliberate transgression of taboos has intensified this emotional message: The implicit message is often (again, not always, but often) "I'm so angry or contemptuous that I'm going to use this taboo word precisely to convey the strength of my feeling." And this message remains of anger or contempt to some extent even if, from context, one can figure out that the person isn't angry or contemptuous -- the context can soften the emotional impact of the word, but it often doesn't eliminate it.

And many people are uncomfortable being around other people who are apparently angry or contemptuous. Anger and contempt are emotions that, we've learned, are sometimes followed by other things -- personal insults, or even fights. Hearing people express these emotions, even when one is not the target of those emotions, makes us uneasy and unhappy.

I noticed this most clearly once when I was playing a chess game against a classmate, who swore when he realized he'd made a bad move. I knew he wasn't really getting angry at me; if anything, he might have just been getting angry at himself, or maybe he was just swearing out of habit. But it was unpleasant for me to be around a person who was behaving in an angry-seeming way.

Of course, if people altogether stop using a word to convey a message of anger or contempt, then over time it will lose this connotation. My sense is that this is one reason why, at least in some circles, "damn" and "hell" don't really raise many eyebrows. Likewise for terms such as "bloody," which don't have a visceral effect on many Americans even if the Americans know that the term is (or at least was) a profanity in England.

But so long as these words are often used to convey these emotions, they will carry an angry or contemptuous connotation even if other contextual cues suggest the emotion is not intended. This may also explain why at least many people have a different reaction when they hear the words in a joke, or in something that's clearly playacting: That sort of contextual cue may be so strong that it becomes very clear to us that the anger or contempt isn't real, but purely fictional.

If I'm right, then the main problem with these words isn't "vulgarity" per se or reference to bodily functions per se. Rather, it's that the reference uses words that are often used to convey an emotion (as I suggested, anger or contempt) that people find unsettling and unpleasant.

This, though, is just a tentative thought on the subject -- I'd love to people's (polite!) views on the subject, in the comments thread.

Brett Bellmore (mail):
Since the point of profanity revolves around it being shocking, and taboo violating, wouldn't any effort to get used to it, and not react, just set off a kind of arms race?
8.2.2005 6:24pm
I think profanity can be an artform. There's nothing like a well-placed cuss word. See David Mamet.
8.2.2005 6:32pm
Sorry -- my Mamet reference is neither here nor there, since Eugene said he had no problem with profanity in "fiction or humor." But I think it can serve a creative purpose in conversation, too, for people who know how to use it well.
8.2.2005 6:35pm
Thief (mail) (www):
I'm not sure that's it. I grew up in a family that cussed (a lot). I guess the best way to put it is that all cases of anger in my family involved anger, but not all cases of anger involved profanity (esp. my dad's off-color jokes from his Air Force days). A more accurate contextual cue to anger is facial expression and volume/pitch of voice.

Profanity, IMHO, is about social conditioning. I'm thinking that Eugene grew up in a family where profanity was mostly heard in the context of anger. A little experiment: watch the new Battlestar Galactica (it's a good show anyway); one of the running gags on the show is the substitution of the word "frack" for "fuck." (As in, "the frackin' Cylons are coming!") See if you have the same reaction to the word "frack."
8.2.2005 6:37pm
Moshe Krakowski (mail):
I don't think Eugene is right about this. There are lots of other words that are used to convey emotion and anger that do not have the same status as being taboo. (Often clean-speaking folk will use 'shoot' instead of its 4 letter substitute). It is the specifically sexual and excretory nature of cuss words that makes them taboo, and its for the same reason that the acts themselves are taboo--there are some things that are meant to be private, and reference to them should be treated with a certain delicacy, otherwise there is a certain profaning of things that are fairly elemental to us.
That's my sense.
8.2.2005 6:40pm
Jeff the Baptist (mail) (www):
Interesting although technically fuck and shit are forms of obscenity not profanity. Profanity is damn and other "profane" semi-religious forms of swearing.

Generally I think we use these words too much to the point of them losing their meaning. I've met more than a few college students that used fuck so many times in casual conversation, that when they really needed to swear the well was dry. They simply had to try to make up for it with volume.

I'm an advocate for saving swearing until the time is appropriate. Then at least our profanity remains relevant and we don't have to learn new four letter words. ;)
8.2.2005 6:41pm
Jay Louis (mail):
This is a very interesting and thought-provoking piece. Here's another potential dimension to this discussion on profanity: would it be as socially unacceptable to curse when ecstatic? Let's say your chess opponent won the match, and then used a profane expression to express his joy. (Competitors in sporting events have done so in the past.) The expression then becomes an intensifier, and a vulgar one at that (literally and figuratively). In that case, perhaps it isn't just "contempt," but any extreme emotion that is at issue. Perhaps the use of vulgarity is discomforting in situations where there is intense emotion because it reflects that the person cannot express his fervor within the realm of moderation, thus potentially destabilizing the conventions of polite society. So that's a potential further dimension to explore; once again, very interesting post!
8.2.2005 6:42pm
Mike Heinz, aka ObviousTroll (mail) (www):
I realize this is a bit vain, but I can't help myself - I wrote an essay on this subject a year or so ago, and I thought you might find it amusing:

Well, Shucks Howdy.
8.2.2005 6:42pm
Guy M. Taylor (mail):
Um... The example words "shit" and "fuck" are obscenities, not profanities. Profanity necessitates taking the Lord's name in vain in some fashion. In that light, I noticed the word "fuck" used quite often in Ireland by nice ladies but using the term "Jesus Christ" as an exclamation was quite taboo. Both types of language are offensive to a degree, but which sensibilities they offend might well depend on the listener's point of view.
8.2.2005 6:51pm
The power of the swear word comes not from the intensity of the emotion, but from the transgressive behavior employed in its invocation. It is that transgression that is more unpleasant for listeners than merely being around an angry person. It's the angry person not keeping it to themselves that puts us on edge. It's the first "clue" that something bad might be about to happen.

Think of it as a kind of "defcon 1" conditioning. We all have little scripts operating below our day-to-day consciousness that we're scarcely aware of, because we don't need to be: responding to a friendly greeting from a familiar face in kind, for example, and, yes, bristling at a spoken cuss word in an unfamiliar situation from an unknown source, especially if spoken in anger. "If we're hearing angry swear words, violence might follow" is the script that's invoked, and we're put on edge.

So how does this explain the bristling others exhibit when overhearing cuss words spoken between friends in a mode of familiar and friendly dialogue? They are not angrily spoken, so why is this bothering us?

Again, I believe because it is the transgression of acceptible behavior that is bothering us: they're messing up our scripts, rendering them less accurate or less reliable. We're getting conflicting messages (violent words, friendly tones), and conflicting messages aren't comfortable.
8.2.2005 6:56pm
Obscene (or profane) words are verbal tattoos. They are meant to shock, proclaim your difference, set one apart and express general willingness to be the Other in social interaction.
8.2.2005 7:04pm
ModelMinority (mail):
Swear words are NOT the same as other words - they are processed partly in the the amygdala - not the frontal cortex. Their association with "base" impulses (fornication and excretion, emotions like "disgust") is deeply ingrained in our brain. Its nothing to do with arty-farty notions of transgressive behavior or conditioning. Thats why there is a separate disease realted to uncontrollable swearing - Tourette's syndrome. And thats why some of us desire a "cuss-free" zone sometime. It just feels cleaner.
8.2.2005 7:05pm
John Jenkins (mail):
Courtesy of, I bring you the American Heritage Dictionary Fourth Edition definition of profanity:

1. The condition or quality of being profane.
2. (a) Abusive, vulgar, or irreverent language.
(b) The use of such language.

Prof. Volokh (the descriptivist) 1, pedants (proscriptivists hoisted on their own petards) 0.
8.2.2005 7:06pm
Mark Buehner (mail) (www):
Much like Douglas Adams intimating that the rest of the galaxy considers us heathen for using the word 'Belgium' outside of an artistic setting, profanity is in the eye of the beholder. Personally, i try make it a habit not to let others upset me with the words they use or the supposed 'anger or contempt' they convey. Communication, after all, is about interpreting messages. If you are habitually misinterpretting messages, particularly attributing anger or malice where there is none, then who exactly is the poor communicator here?
8.2.2005 7:09pm
Oh, yeah, and I meant to say that we'll always need swear words of any kind; even if we prohibit any given list at any time, others will rise to the occasion. Sugar, poot, drat -- they're all the same thing, just not the same word; if you phase out their naughty analogues, eventually they would become just as bad.

Last I checked, no one really knew where "fuck" came from, but it's become the essence of the Bad Word in English, and no one really remembers what it originally meant or how it came to be a Bad Word. It only means what it means because we've invested this element of tabboo into it all these years.

Without swear words that allow us to transgress, either in jocular familiarity or in extreme emotional states, we lose a whole method of communication (and probably the most harmless steam-releasing valve available to us). The irony, of course, is that swearing is only powerful as a mode of communication because it's not something you're supposed to do.
8.2.2005 7:18pm
Dan Simon (www):
In Quebec, it is often noted that while English swear words generally refer to sex or bodily functions, French swear words generally refer to religious objects. Of course, back when English speakers were generally more devout, English swear words ("damn", "hell") were similarly religious in orientation. And modern French equivalents of English swear words (especially "merde") are really quite mild. These examples suggest that the emotional impact of swearing is strongly related to its invocation of sensitive, embarrassing or taboo topics, not just its implication of the speaker's anger or contempt.

Here's an analogy: why are people often uncomfortable with public nudity? Presumably it's because nudity brings out into the open matters (sexual arousal, bodily functions) that people prefer to keep private. By exposing one's own "private parts", one threatens, by implication, the assurance of those around oneself that their private parts--and their thoughts and feelings about them--will remain private.

Similarly, someone who swears broaches, in an aggressively casual way, a topic of conversation that many people would like to keep out of public discourse. And, as Samael7 points out, that kind of line-crossing portends other possible line-crossings as well. It's not surprising, then, that it makes many people quite uncomfortable.
8.2.2005 7:21pm
A Berman (mail):
Eugene, you wrote:
"Others say that profanity is wrong because it's vulgar, debasing, dirty, or what have you. But that's just a label or a metaphor -- it doesn't explain why profanity is bad."

The word 'debasing' is not a label or a metaphor, it actually conveys a true statement about what happens. Using profanity (or obscenity) can debase the speaker and the listener. Being debased or degraded is commonly viewed as a bad thing, though less commonly than it used to be.

Of course, manners are arbitrary. But those arbitrary signals such as Please, Thank You, and not cursing, denote respect, and other signals denote disrespect.
8.2.2005 7:23pm
Billy Beck (mail) (www):
8.2.2005 7:27pm
jallgor (mail):
I personally find vulgarity jarring for the first reason Eugene articulated. It doesn't annoy me it just makes me think less of the person who uses it in an innappropriate place. If I am at a bar with my friends they can throw out all the fuck's they want and I wouldn't think twice but to hear the same thing at work would make think the speaker had very poor judgment.
When cursing actually bothers someone I think it stems from what Eugene described as being too Puritanical (although I am not sure that's the right word). Some people were raised to think cursing is morally wrong, not just innapropriate in certain places.
I would compare it to how different people might react if a person ran naked down the street. I would probably laugh and say that person is an idiot but I would not be offended. Other people would actually get upset by it because they were raised to think that such an action is immoral.
8.2.2005 7:30pm
Tom Hanna (www):
I had a friend who used the F-word as punctuation, as if instead of a period each sentence ended with it. Though it was sometimes uncomfortable being around him in public, in private it became less annoying because I knew it was just punctuation. So, I would tend to agree that it's the angry, unpleasant emotion associated with the words that are the problem.

Another thing to keep in mind is that it is considerably more effective to save those words for special occasions. I seldom use profanity not because it offends me but because it seems unprofessional. If I do say something profane, people realize I'm serious.
8.2.2005 7:30pm
Samuel Gross (mail):
Speaking of profanity

Check out the "Related in Slate" portion of this column, directly below the end of the column text. It calls Judge Posner a "prolific bastard." I contacted Mr. Shafer stating that his use of words was inappropriate and that it undermined his argument and his response

"I meant it admiringly. Cool it"

Now generally if you call someone a bastard after spending an entire column calling him a hack and criticizing his work is it meant admiringly? Maybe I just totally misread what he was saying, but I generally think that if you call someone any kind of name, whether profane or not, in what is supposed to be a serious forum (editorial, journal article, judicial opinion etc...) or any forum at all, you not only are being offensive, but are undermining your own argument by proving to everyone that you cannot make a sound argument and instead resorting to ad hominem attacks.

I agree that it isn't necessary to have profanity to be offensive. A lot of the time tone of voice or context is enough. In this example whatever Mr. Shafer means it probably isn't the literal meaning that Judge Posner's parents were not married, but seemed to me an insult aimed at a person whose arguments the author disagreed with. Mr. Shaffer obviously felt that it was a backhanded compliment.
8.2.2005 7:31pm
That's interesting, ModelMinority. So, words "partly processed in the amygdala" is what gives us those feeling of uncleanliness? So, what happens when it's used casually amongst friends, over long periods of time? Does that somehow "weaken" the association?

And that sounds like it just tells us where that initial spark of disgust comes from. It doesn't sound like they start from there, since presumably, a native speaker of Chinese who had Tourette's wouldn't say "fuck," but their native equivalent, right? But at some point we had to make the association between the word and the "baser instincts." So is this "learning" different from "conditioning?"

And why does hearing the words in a different context make us laugh?

I don't mean to be contrarian, MoralMinority, but you sound like you know something of neuropsycholgy. I shamefully admit I use words like "amygdala" less than I do "shit" (though probably more than "fuck").
8.2.2005 7:35pm
alex anorak (mail):
Some people say that rape is ... debasing... But that's just a label or a metaphor. It doesn't explain WHY rape is bad.
8.2.2005 7:39pm
jallgor (mail):
Samuel Gross,
He was calling him prolific which is obviously a compliment. Adding bastard at the end of a compliment is just a funny way of emphasizing it. It is also a way to keep the compliment sort of light and macho. For example, I have heard guys say things like "he's a smart fucker isn't he" or "he's one good looking bastard."
8.2.2005 7:39pm
John Fembup (mail):
Ron Luciano (former American League Umpire, now deceased, once said everything a player might say to him was OK up to the word "you". "Then" he said, "it's personal". That's when he would run the player (eject from game). So for example, "fuck you" was acceptable, but "you fuck" was not.

That sounds like a combination of the emotion and the disrespect. Both have to be there for a real obscenity to have real power.
8.2.2005 7:44pm
Samuel Gross (mail):
Prolific could be a compliment, it could also suggest that his writing values quantity over quantity, which seems much more likely given the content of the column. Of course people compliment people with profanity, but not usually after spending considerable effort tearing down a person's argument. Anyway the point was more along the lines of looking at context and profanity in general as carrying connotations that the author may not have intended. Interesting too is that with the lack of context in a written format such as tone facial expressions etc... is the increased chance that the message will result in a misinterpretation.
8.2.2005 7:47pm
commander0 (mail):
"But it was unpleasant for me to be around a person who was behaving in an angry-seeming way."

What a fuckin' weenie. What's better than making somebody say "shit" in a chess game. Three company hookers in a hot tub maybe.........Nah, not as good.
8.2.2005 7:48pm
commander0 (mail):
"But it was unpleasant for me to be around a person who was behaving in an angry-seeming way."

What a fuckin' weenie. What's better than making somebody say "shit" in a chess game. Three company hookers in a hot tub maybe.........Nah, not as good.

(profanity being the subject here I will take license this one time only to make a point)
8.2.2005 7:51pm
byrd (mail):
I'm kind of surprised nobody's mentioned Lenny Bruce yet.

Bruce did a long spiel about profanity in an attempt to show that if you use it often enough, it stops meaning anything (I suppose like 'hell' and 'damn' in Eugene's examples). Bruce's point was that it is the taboo nature of these words that give them their power. If we'd stop being so prissy about it, the words would become bland and nobody'd care anymore.

That's why I'm annoyed by people who use profanity carelessly--they rob it of its power, render it meaningless. I curse sparingly and only when I mean it. If people who know me hear me say 'fuck' they know there's a reason. And I like it that way.
8.2.2005 7:52pm
timbeevers (mail):
I think what's wrong with profanity, lies in its intent. As my focus shifts away from the benefit of others, I first begin to disregard them, then to disrespect them and finally to denigrate them. My language often betrays my selfish feelings and thoughts.
The goodness or badness of the words can meaningfully be measured only in this context.

I think I have a natural sense that there may be something/someone bigger than I, better than I am; and I rebel against this. Sometimes my language betrays my bitterness, and sometimes I soothe myself by making someone or something else look bad.

It may be that it is from this unhappiness and insecurity, that I sometimes feel the need to be shocking.
8.2.2005 7:59pm
Good grief.
I suppose tomorrow's topic will be "why can't I pick my nose or fart at a formal dinner party?"
Have we really sunk so low that a group of highly educated people have to argue with each other over the societal prohibition against uttering profanities? We, meaning Americans, have birthed a vulgar society.
8.2.2005 7:59pm
Ryne (mail) (www):
I don't think that there's anything necessarily wrong with profanity, it's just that there's a time and a place for everything. Believe me, I know: I'd like to think that I myself have contributed something to the global cause of creative profanity.

However, what bothers me the most is how it has seeped into nearly every aspect of our lives to the point where we don't understand when or how to swear. The other day I was in a restaurant when a girl of maybe 15 or 16 ripped a quite loud "Fuck!" that carried over most of the room and was overheard by nearly every patron. Did she blush? Quite the opposite, because she looked quite pleased with herself. From that point on everything was "Fuck this," or "Fuck that," or something "Fucking sucks!" Why did she do it? Because it's cool. Everyone in all of her favorite movies can unload a "Fuck!" at any time, and it's either interesting or hilarious, and nevermind the fact that there are toddlers and little old ladies sitting around within earshot.

Let's face it: there's nothing inherently wrong with talking like a sailor. But we've destroyed the line between when we're hanging out with the boys (or the girls) and when we're in polite company.
8.2.2005 8:13pm
Chris Hagar:
American Heritage is a mediocre dictionary, though not as inaccurate as the ridiculous synonymizing WordNet you find below it on Dictionaries which catalogue effectively the use of the language by literature and its history, like the venerable Webster's and Oxford English Dictionaries, both of which, in the definition for "profanity", exclusively refer to the older, baser "profane", which has a meaning confined to impiety or unsacredness. Of course, whether swearing is an insult to God would be a different question.
8.2.2005 8:15pm
big dirigible (mail) (www):
I dislike this sort of profanity because it's tedious. One outfit I did some design work for had an employee with a limited vocabulary, and half of it was "f---." I hated dealing with him, because he was s...o... s...l...o...w..... In the time it took him to finish a simple declarative sentence, like "the f----n' control system's f----n' power supply is f----n' shot again," I could polish off a couple of bags of snacks and squeeze in a few 'phone calls, besides.

I was also unimpressed by Hollywood's odd theory of fifteen or twenty years back, that if half the dialog in war movies was "f---", some sort of magic realism would be imparted. Wrong! Just more tedium. I want dialog, not noise.
8.2.2005 8:15pm
Jonathan Hawkins (mail) (www):
Mr. Gross

You can respect someone while loathing them. One of my favorite movie quotes is George C. Scott as Patton, after winning a battle against the German tank genius: "Rommel, you magnificent bastard! I read your book!"

I think it illustrates the point well.
8.2.2005 8:19pm
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
What's wrong with profanity is that it assumes a relationship with the hearer that has not been granted. You can swear among friends, but not with a stranger. Its transgression is of that social barrier.

What's right with profanity is that it exists exactly to transgress that social barrier. Every culture has words designated to do this useful and handy thing.

Cuss words are invented in order to insult people in exactly that way.
8.2.2005 8:23pm
Gil (mail) (www):
I disagree with Redman. I think it's an excellent topic.

There are still places in the world where people are being executed for violating taboos. It's good to think about whether things are really bad, or not, and how we should react to them, and why our first reactions might be wrong.

There are a lot of people who are simply unable to appreciate something like The Aristocrats.

I think it's a handicap that they would do well to overcome.
8.2.2005 8:25pm
Branford (mail):
Here's some info on the etymology for f*ck:
"The root is undoubtedly Germanic (NOT German), as it has cognates in other Northern European languages: Middle Dutch fokken meaning to thrust, to copulate with, dialectical Norwegian fukka meaning to copulate and dialectical Swedish focka meaning to strike, push, copulate, while fock means penis. Both French and Italian have similar words, foutre and fottere respectively. These derive from the Latin futuere."

So that word, at least, shows force and potential anger in its meaning that has perhaps carried over into its use as an obscenity--and not just because it describes a sexual act.
8.2.2005 8:36pm
Al Maviva:
As the resident Burke-y Boy, I think you're on the right track when you point to the transgressive nature of obscenity - it breaks rules. But where did the rules come from? And why are we upset about the breach thereof? It's not like there are cussin' police out there...

I think that society up until recently was focused on dragging man out of the muck, restraining the inner beast that seems to enjoy war, chaos, rape, robbery, Reality Television, and being generally disorderly. Yep, Rousseau's noble savage, or Hobbes solitary, nasty, and brutish man.

Similarly, until fairly recently, most people aspired to be civilized, like their "betters" to some extent. That's why they had sumptuary laws - gotta keep the plebs down, can't let 'em think they have a chance of sharing in upper society.

Vestiges of old fashioned manners have hung on stubbornly like old neckties, but as Theodore Dalrymple points out regularly, trying to be like one's betters is pretty well out of fashion with most people, to the point where cabinet level officials in Britain wear sweat pants or jeans to fit in, and U.S. Presidents can't be bothered to hold out for a trophy mistress, but feel comfortable schlepping around with fat college girls. This decay in manners - our betters acting like "us", is probably related to post-French Revolution egalitarianism, in various forms.

At the same time egalitarianism and maybe democracy was leveling us, the rise of the radical individualists, the Marxists and neo-Marxists (Gramsci, Marcuse) caused a direct attack on manners that is revolutionary in nature. The Sixties radicals often expressed an argument along the lines of, "bad grooming and bad language to overthrow a bad system, man." With respect to the 68'ers, this was a direct result of Gramsci and Marcuse insisting that we had to privilege the criminal over the hegemony-supporting cop, the bum over the bourgeois (sp?), the lunatic over the psychiatrist. Sexual revolution, anybody? The chattering classes didn't just come up with the idea of free love spontaneously, it *came* from somewhere, the same place that arguments about smashing conventional manners came from.

So, the use of bad language out of context could be philosophically associated with some unsavory romanticists like Byron and Rousseau, or maybe with neo-Marxist revolutionaries, take your pick. I don't think most people would look at it in that much of a critical manner, but rather simply recoil intuitively out of a sense of manners or propriety.

Burke, of course, identified things like manners and morals as important forms of prescription that tended to moderate what would otherwise be harsh, beastly interactions between men. That notion is scoffed at by most of our postmodern wise men, but the fact that you personally still recoil a bit at somebody dropping the F bomb testifies to the lasting power of such conventions.
8.2.2005 9:01pm
syn4me (mail):
I am expanding my 'creative profanity' language and am wondering if anyone knows the male word for 'slut'? I am searching for a word that implies the same connotation for males as 'slut' brings to females.

By the way, male slut cannot be used since the word 'slut' is gender specific.

Lest I be accused of prudishness, thanks ever so fucking much.
8.2.2005 9:31pm
bubb (mail) (www):
that a buncha fukin sheet!
8.2.2005 10:14pm
Rick Ballard (mail):
Al Maviva,

Polite but enthusiastic applause. I can express any heightened emotion using words that could not be construed as deviant from the cultural norm of '55 at any time. It may take a moment longer to accomplish the same task but I am willing to wager that I can make my emotion known.

Vulgarities are known as such because of the class which uses them. Enjoy your frisson as you identify yourself.

And if you don't agree, well, then we all can tell you what to do about it, can't we?
8.2.2005 10:15pm
nk (mail) (www):
I propose that we all take the time
To phrase all of our comments in rhyme.
Our words should be clean,
Neither uncouth nor obscene,
And appropriate to the political clime.
8.2.2005 10:16pm
John Armstrong (mail):
I'm surprised nobody has brought up the historical roots of why these words are considered taboo.

IANAPhilologist, but I find greatly credible the explanation of why "fuck", "shit", and "piss" (among others) are considered uncouth has ultimately nothing to do with a puritanical influence, but rather with the fact that they are derived from Germanic and Saxon roots. The acceptable English "urinate", "defacate", and "coitus" (unfortunately, English has no acceptable transitive verb for the sexual act that I can think of) derive from Latin through French. After the Norman conquest, those were the words that "high class" people would use. "Fuck", "shit", and "piss" marked one as a commoner. Ultimately, then, it comes back to signs of social groups, as Professor Volokh suggests.
8.2.2005 10:36pm
danithew (www):
I think the connection between anger/contempt and heavy cursing (f-words and the like) is rather astute. A lot of people use this language in a flippant and almost recreational way. However, there are also that small percentage of people in our society who have an inclination towards violence -- and I have the feeling that when someone directs especially heavy language at them, it triggers a violent response. I read a book about violent criminals by a sociologist named Lonnie Athens -- and one of the factors that impressed me from his case studies (he interviewed people in prison who had been convicted of the most violent crimes) was the degree to which this language saturated their thought and words.

So it seems to me that there could be a sort of connection between heavy cussing - anger - violence.
8.2.2005 11:12pm
ChrisPer (mail):
Historically the word 'profane' was in contrast to the 'sacred'. Of the world or of the gutter, not much difference in the face of the Almighty.

The social distinctions of the past were closely tied to conventions of other criteria than social class; the devout or at least observant tried to separate themselves from sin, and there was a lot of infection in the language of the gutter so ladies of any class, and gentlemen of any class in the company of ladies or religious would choose appropriate words.

In our own times, the main class distinction has morphed into the 'parochials' vs 'cosmopolitians' in their various expressions. I think you will still find that 'appropriateness' cuts across the classes, but now the accelerating descent to the gutter of our youth culture sees young people educated by pop music and their peers to use gangsta words, leftover activists of the cosmopolitans use 'confronting' language. SO transgressive. They don't have to be chavs to act like them when partying it seems.

Of course, there is still clear licence in the rough workplace, building sites and mines for instance; and still offense taken by those on earshot who are not of that class.

I think it is really a monkey-brain thing; we want to be in the company of similar and/or admired others; we adopt the language of that group. Transgression is a trivial and irrelevant gaming of that basic drive.
8.2.2005 11:27pm
I think Ron Hardin is on to something when he says, " assumes a relationship with the hearer that has not been granted." I realize that there are things that I could do to unintentionally insult someone (not having a beard offends some...), but you can't refrain from everything that could possibly offend, but it is appropriate to refrain from things that are likely to offend.

I think it comes down to a couple great quotes from "Blast from the Past" (a movie I would heartily recommend):
"... good manners are just a way of showing other people we have respect for them"
"But it turns out, his short and simple definition of a lady or a gentleman is, someone who always tries to make sure the people around him or her are as comfortable as possible."

These lines are hilarious in the context of the movie because they seem so out of place in todays world, but they are absolutely true. Manners should be the way we show people we have respect for them and we should make sure that people around us are as comfortable as possible.
8.2.2005 11:36pm
Bleepless (mail):
In Pogo Possum, when they completely lost control, they would shout, "Gosh-a-mickel, dickle pickle, gee willy wobbles, dog my cats and Rowrbazzle!"
8.2.2005 11:55pm
Hermione Granger:
Prof. Volokh.. you have just convinced me to stop cursing. Thank you!
8.3.2005 12:11am
Elliot (mail):
Professor - your post has inspired me to try an expirement. For the next month, I'm going to attempt to substitute "bunnies" and "puppies" in for the usual vulgarities when I get mad, and see if people's reactions are largely the same.
8.3.2005 12:48am
Christopher Fotos (mail) (www):
Very simple: Because the world is ugly enough.

Someday I'm going to write a book with that title.

Today there's a half-page ad in the Washington Post about some disease or something that affects your internal organs. Don't care, because the ad is gross and the world is ugly enough: the ad portrays a gigantic human face disfigured by some disease on the outside.

Same with ugly language. Don't harsh my mellow.
8.3.2005 12:56am
Victoria (mail) (www):
I have finally made it to TVC, after years of hearing about it (admittedly, I may have come here before, but in passing).

And what is my introduction to Mr. Volokh? Cussing! An interesting topic, I've always thought.

I am a multilingual person who has lived in many countries, and just about the first thing I love to learn are bad words in each language.

To use them? Nah, I am not in the everyday habit of using them (largely I think because I am a born conservative). But rather to explore why one culture uses words profanely or obscenely, whilst another culture does not.

And there are some cultures where a word we would use, like sh*t, is nearly innocuous -- as merde and Scheisse are in French and German. (They are in effect, the equivalent of a hard 'damn').

And yet in Norway, telling someone to go to the devil, is akin to our f-bomb...although Norwegians themselves are easy swearers, like Spaniards.

In Romanian, pasarica (little bird) is the naughty word for the female pudenda, and yet I have heard from my Romanian friends that grown men blush when saying it.

Yet in Japanese, there are no native profane or obscene words, or rather, they use "normal" words which have obscene meanings.

(Rather like the Spaniards use "leche!" (milk) to signify "damn"; it comes from the milky qualities of male ejaculate, so you can see the inference).

How did one people become more profane than another, is what I'd like to know.

What subtle messages did each culture cue to make this happen?

One of my parents is a child psychiatrist who has dealt with copralalia (the involuntary usage of profanity, as in Tourette's) professionally.

At the root of profanity and obscenities is a need to shock, and to harm, as many people include the blog owner have mentioned: but also to express basic human functions like mating, going to the bathroom, and striking out against authority figures like God.

You'd think the more authoritarian a culture, then, the more common using cuss words would be, in a kind of inverse reaction, but it's not so easy to come to that conclusion.

English peoples everywhere are very obscene, and yet we have had, arguably, the most open societies regards to male/female behaviours. So that's not it.

Some hyper-macho countries, like Spain, have an unusually strong Arab influence, and are considered a very profane people because of it.

(People might remember about Lawrence of Arabia, that he favourably impressed his Arab hosts by his ability to swear non-stop for half-an-hour in Arabic. Now that is proficiency in profanity, boy)

This is neither here nor there to Eugene Volokh's original question, but I think the deeper we delve in other countries, the more we can find why profanity is judged wrong or not (and their degrees) according to each culture.

What I am saying is, alas, there isn't one simple or pat answer to the question posed.

I hope someone writes a book on cussing one day, I really do.

And no, Bullsh*t doesn't count, although my heart raced when I saw it, since I thought finally someone had tackled the topic. Boo.

8.3.2005 1:01am
Rough Justice (mail):
I think you are a wuss, Eugene. Your "we're trying something new" wussy rant below makes me want to shout "BOLLOCKS!" The fact that you eliminated comments for so long make me think that you and your cohorts are a bunch of spineless, fragile wimps to begin with. Why can't you stand to be insulted like Everyman? You need to be shot out of your ivory tower nest from time to time to bring you back down to earth. Have you such a delicate constitution that you can't deal with another's anger, profanity or insults? What the hell is wrong with you, dude? Delete that anti-free speech, wretched screed printed below, right now. Am I the only one who thinks that long-winded "warning warning, Will Robinson" message typed below is an affront to a cultured person's sensibilities? Note to fellow bloggers: Please insult Eugene in the comments section until he learns to like it!
8.3.2005 1:12am
Obscenities have traditionally been used to convey strong emotions, especially anger and contempt. Also, tradition has long held that casual use of obscenities is tolerable in some situations, but not in others. For example, swearing in the men's locker room is okay, but swearing at church is not.

My biggest objection to the casual use of obscenities in our culture is that it was almost impossible for me as a parent to explain to my kids when they could, couldn't cuss, why is shit more offensive than crap, why do adults cuss if they don't want to hear kids cuss, etc. etc. Kids who are still learning that the past tense of "run" is "ran", not "runned" are not old enough to process the definitions and social uses of cussing. Adults who cuss in the public square are placing an uneccessary burden on kids, and that places a burden on their parents. Casual cussing in the public square just makes it harder for parents to help kids learn good manners and common courtesy.
8.3.2005 2:37am
AST (mail):
A lot of good points here.

I don't like profanity, which is listed in the Ten Commandments, because I believe in God and Jesus Christ and I don't believe it honors them to use their names as expressions of anger or contempt. I object to people who claim to be religious using sacred names casually.

The religious objection aside, I think that vulgarities and obscenities, which are oddly deemed "adult" language, are generally used to prove one's adulthood, as though it needed proof. To me this language doesn't prove anything, except a lack of vocabulary and inability to express or control oneself.

For some reason, I have always disliked contention, and when people get angry, they seem to lose their normal restraints, and wish others to be damned or insult their parentage and call them every offensive name they can think of. And usually, it gets the response intended: anger and retaliation. Angry and disrespect are unhelpful in any kind of discussion, particularly in law proceedings.

I agree with the point above that when foul language becomes casual, it loses its effect and becomes just another one of the distasteful things in life, like dog droppings on the sidewalks. We're all familiar with it, but it doesn't make it smell any better.

The reason vulgar language is described as "four letter" or "Anglo-Saxon" words, is that they reflect a low origin. The French were the aristocracy in Britain, while the Anglo-Saxons were the peasants, farmers, poor, etc. -- the lower classes.

I guess another point is that such language reflects a lack of respect for other people. Sometimes it is used to intimidate others. I associate it with bullying, abuse, denigrating others, or being more than willing to offend them. (See Rough Justice's comment above.) I find it boorish, another reference to farmers.

I suppose the main reason it bothers people is that they were taught as children to "watch your mouth." I think of the boy in "A Christmas Story" sitting there with a bar of soap in his mouth, and his point that he had learned the ultimate Anglo-Saxon, four-letter word from his father. But my dad swore a lot, particularly with words that reflected his upbringing on a farm.

Lastly, it strikes me as a way of throwing off restraint, declaring that we don't accept normal rules, that "nobody tells me what to do." Nothing is sacred. Nothing is worthy of respect or honor. There are no values we should keep.

That's why the reference to pornography as "adult content," is ironic. Adults who consider sex to be private and a part of real, grown up intimacy, I think, have more respect for their partners than to want to see them degraded or their privacy and dignity violated. Adolescents are the ones at whom most movie sex is aimed, as where two people start tearing of their clothes and jump ravenously on each other. Adolescents don't get foreplay, tenderness or taking it slow.

That's why most smokers start when they're adolescents or close to it.

That's also why liberated women have taken up open profanity--they want to show that they're equal to men. In retaliation, men become more crude. It's a race to the bottom. Where does that lead?

I guess my main objection to profanity is that it just lacks class. It doesn't impress me; it repels me. When I hear it or read it, it just seems coarse and juvenile, like a loud drunk who thinks he's being debonaire. It's a form of verbal violence, insult, incivility and immaturity. It's a lewd limerick masquerading as poetry. It's using language like a club.

So feel free to flail away, folks.
8.3.2005 2:45am
Sarah (mail) (www):
I object to profanity on two grounds: I do hold it to be morally wrong (and also a reasonably likely affront to other people's sensibilities; worse than body odor but not as bad as slapping them in the face) and if anyone at my job uses it with a customer, they'll get fired in the middle of that phone call. Plus everything AST said.
8.3.2005 3:15am
Quarterican (mail):
What Ed said above about manners is absolutely true, and is/ought to be the definition of a gentleman (or a lady): someone who makes those around him/herself as comfortable as possible. At least, that's what my father taught me. To that end, when I'm around people made uncomfortable by swearing (or people like my father, around whom swearing makes me uncomfortable), I don't do it.

What surprises me in the posts above is the way so many of the comments on the one hand recognize the essentially arbitrary nature of obscenity, and yet on the other seem so...condescending about its usage. I concede the point about swearing too much dulling the effect (which is why, when swearing, I frequently use a certain word still taboo in the States but not nearly as much so in England, because it still has shock value). And I disapprove of swearing around children because they may not be fully equipped to understand when it is or isn't appropriate to repeat such words.

But otherwise, it's just a social convention, and a fairly transparent one, which I observe inasmuch as I feel like respecting the social conventions of those around me, because it's entirely arbitrary and I have no intrinsic respect for it. There's something juvenile about swearing for, essentially, excitement (I feel no excitement when I swear, thanks to doing it so often), but I also think there's something juvenile about tsk-tsk-ing something so unimportant, when you should know better. A statement like "Vulgarities are known as such because of the class which uses them. Enjoy your frisson as you identify yourself," just reeks of snobbery to me. If you don't want to hear something, then make that known to the people you talk to, and that's reason enough to respect your stance. But becoming contemptuous about those who violate a taboo which only has strength because of precedent is, in my opinion, contemptible.
8.3.2005 3:56am
Malaclypse The Tertiary (www):
I submit that these words can and are commissioned by those more toward the Oscar Wilde rather than Eugene Volokh end of my fucking brilliant little ad hoc aesthete/work continuum so as to produce something other than the appearance of either aggression or low caste.

Well, perhaps not the excretory stuff.
8.3.2005 4:53am
Malaclypse The Tertiary (www):
make that aesthete/wonk
8.3.2005 4:54am
Larry (mail):

If you never use "fuck" and "shit" and the like, but turn on someone who knows you well with a sudden but very sincere "Damn you!", you actually will have a tremendous effect, and one which he is unlikely to forget.
8.3.2005 6:08am
sammler (mail) (www):
Several commenters have pointed out that as profanity becomes commonplace, stronger profanity capable of supplying its lost shock value will fill the same ecological niche.

The flip side of this "race to the bottom" is the likelihood that reducing profanity in public discourse would increase articulacy. Details here.
8.3.2005 7:08am
Profanities are like verbal exclamation points. Used sparingly, they can liven speech up. Used in the wrong place, they are as annoying reading text filled with exclamation points!

So I don't think the problem is that "the main problem with these words" is that they "convey an emotion . . . that people find unsettling and unpleasant." The problem is that when profanties are used excessively, they inject too much emotion into too many sentences.
8.3.2005 7:08am
peacerebel (mail) (www):
When I was a kid 50 years ago, I could use the N word without consequence. But if I used the F word, I would have been in deep, deep trouble. Now the opposite is true. I can say the F word in most situations, but the N word will get me fired.

A change for the better, I would say, but the point is there is always a class of forbidden words. Some of them are so foul, most of us posting on this thread keep them in a separate unmentioned category.
8.3.2005 9:19am
Gerald Dearing (mail):
We'd like the posts to be civil, of course (no profanity, personal insults, and the like)

Policy revised?
8.3.2005 9:28am
JohnO (mail):

I was also unimpressed by Hollywood's odd theory of fifteen or twenty years back, that if half the dialog in war movies was "f---", some sort of magic realism would be imparted. Wrong! Just more tedium. I want dialog, not noise.

As a ten-year Marine, I can say that Marines in the field swear ALL THE TIME (obviously there are exceptions, but it's true). I also find that when I am in trial, and away from my family for an extended period with other litigators, our language devolves pretty quickly to the point where every third word is "fuck." I think it's something about the male psyche.
8.3.2005 10:25am
Professor - your post has inspired me to try an expirement. For the next month, I'm going to attempt to substitute "bunnies" and "puppies" in for the usual vulgarities when I get mad, and see if people's reactions are largely the same.

I did this for a while, substituting the names of Winnie-the-Pooh characters for various profanities. Reactions vary; it's a fun experiment that I heartily recommend.

On a related subject, is there anything to the suggestion that certain taboo words pack a particular punch just because of their sound? "Fuck," for example, starts with a fricative sound, a slow burn, a hissing buildup to the hard, strong "u" sound, which clubs the hearer over the head before the word terminates abruptly with the "k" sound. When pronounced with a certain amount of velocity, the sound of the word alone possesses a lot more ferociousness than other one-syllable words. "Folk," for instance, in which only the vowel sound has changed, doesn't seem to have nearly the same viciousness. Could it be that "fuck" just possesses the right combination of linguistic properties to make it especially offensive?
Of course, the word "suck," which has the same properties I've described, doesn't offend nearly as much; nevertheless, it can still be an unpleasant word to hear when pronounced a certain way. Words like "page," "door," or "spoon," on the other hand, don't seem to be that offensive, even if one tries to spit them out with an angry spin. Take as another example "shit." Again, we have a fricative sound at the beginning and an abrupt stop at the end. I realize that "shut" or "shot" aren't quite as offensive; however, presuming a word is an obscenity already, perhaps this explains why certain obscenities seem more offensive than others - why "shit," for example, is more offensive than "Scheisse," its German counterpart, or why "fuck" ranks high in the hierarchy of offensiveness.

I'm just hypothesizing; comments are welcome.
8.3.2005 10:29am
Elliot (mail):
What were the reactions for substituting the winnie the pooh characters in for the usual vulgarities? Did you get a lot of laughs when you started "cussing"? Were people put off? Did others try to copy your experiment? Did you actually fall into the habit of saying "Winnie the Pooh" in lieu of "shit" so that you conciously had to break it?
8.3.2005 10:59am
Just me (mail):
Re: the profanity/obscenity distinction and the dictionary:

I humbly suggest that Mr. Jenkins overstates the case when he says that earlier posters, who had said that profanity referred more narrowly to speech that had an anti-religious/blasphemous bent, were "pedants" who were "hoisted on their own petards" by the dictionary definition of the term profanity.

Mr. Jenkins cites, from, the American Heritage Dictionary Fourth Edition definition of profanity, as follows:

1. The condition or quality of being profane.
2. (a) Abusive, vulgar, or irreverent language.
(b) The use of such language.

While this definition does indeed allow for generally "vulgar" language as a SECOND definition, it still reserves as a primary definition the reference to being "profane." And the adjective "profane" is defined by that same dictionary as follows:

1. Marked by contempt or irreverence for what is sacred.
2. Nonreligious in subject matter, form, or use; secular: sacred and profane music.
3. Not admitted into a body of secret knowledge or ritual; uninitiated.
4. Vulgar; coarse

(at )

Thus, it seems to me that even from a DESCRIPTIVIST matter, not as a PREscriptivist one, the term profane still has, as a PRIMARY meaning, the connection to religion, the sacred, etc.

That does not make Eugene's usage wrong, as the secondary meaning, i.e., general synonym for vulgarity, is of course valid, but it does seem to undercut Mr. Jenkins's triumphalist tone.

Or, in the spirit of the topic, perhaps I should say, "Moderate and mildly-prescriptivist descriptivism - fark yeah!"
8.3.2005 11:15am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
What must be remembered here is that this learned aversion to swearing is a middle class thing. They used this to distinguish themselves from the lower class. Vulgarity was expected of the lower classes and the aristocracy was exempt. And indeed, the upper class's flaunting of this middle class prohibition was one of the ways that they showed their superiority. And has been noted, a lot of our traditional profanity is of Old-English versus French descent.

All mention of bodily function was frowned upon. You might go to the bathroom, but never mentioned that it was to take a shit or piss. I see this to this day in my well taught upper middle class family. My girlfriend, descended from much more recent immigrants, who were not all college educated, etc. took some getting used to. She doesn't go to the bathroom, or wherever, but rather to pee.

I should add here that religion goes hand in hand with this. The middle class here were fairly pious, and, this, I think reinforced their revulsion at profanity. Indeed, that maybe why true profanity and vulgarity have gotten so intermixed.

The problem is that this cozy middle class structure has broken down in this country - in the second half of the 20th century. And I blame this on the fact that this country has become much more a meritocracy, esp. during the last 1/4 of the 20th Century. No longer are the Ivy Leagues filled with legacies, but, rather, mostly by the smartest and most gifted, regardless of class. No longer can you tell the middle class by its speech.

I would suggest that you hear more vulgarity in the cities, such as where Eugene lives, for two reasons. First, there is probably a lot more of this mixing there - the best and the brightest, regardless of background, tend to flock there for the opportunities, as well as, possibly, for culture and variety. And second, there may be a bit more anti-traditional middle class sentiment there.
8.3.2005 11:19am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
One thing that is interesting to me, in having a 14 year old daughter just starting high school in a couple of weeks is how she really doesn't understand the source and meaning of some of the (very mild) swear words she uses. She was using the word "suck" a bit, until I pointed out its meaning as something girls do to guys. Ditto with "piss" Though bright, she didn't put it together that guys piss, and girls pee, and part of the former's meaning includes a guy's contempt of what he is urinating on. In short, she doesn't have the equipment to be pissed off with.
8.3.2005 11:26am
Stan Morris (mail):
As an aside to Bruce Hayden, I was shocked when my children came home from kindergarten (or maybe first grade) using shit, fuck, hell and damn. My wife and I decided we could not stop it but we could short circuit it, especialy since they had probably heard those words from me, usually when deling with some balky machinery. Our solution: Those are special words that you use to express great anger. If the words are overused how are people to know you are, indeed, angry, not merely upset?
8.3.2005 12:43pm
Stan Morris (mail):
As an aside to Bruce Hayden, I was shocked when my children came home from kindergarten (or maybe first grade) using the words under discussion. My wife and I decided we could not stop it but we could short circuit it, especialy since they had probably heard those words from me, usually when deling with some balky machinery. Our solution: Those are special words that you use to express great anger. If the words are overused how are people to know you are, indeed, angry, not merely upset?
8.3.2005 12:44pm
Julie Seaman (mail):
In response to Victoria:

In fact there is an interesting book about cursing: Timothy Jay, Cursing in America: A Psycholinguistic Study of Dirty Language in the Courts, in the Movies, in the Schoolyards and on the Streets (1992). I suppose this is a shameless plug, but I reference the book in a forthcoming law review article about sexual harassment, sex differences, and evolutionary psychology. The article is entitled "Form and (Dys)Function in Sexual Harassment Law: Biology, Culture, and the Spandrels of Title VII" (forthcoming, Arizona State Law Journal, Vol. 37, p. 321, 2005). It is available at The reference to cursing is at footnote 184.

The Jay book describes some interesting studies concerning gender differences in response to “curse” words and, if I recall correctly, it also discusses the derivation of many or our current dirty words and the psychology behind our reactions to their use.

When my children were younger, and before I had any academic interest in the subject, I recall being fascinated by the question why certain words were considered “bad” and why others that had the same meaning (i.e. they described the same body parts or functions) were ok. When my children would come home from preschool and tell me that they had learned a “bad” word, I would ask them what makes the word bad. I think most parents know that the answer is circular – it is bad precisely because you are not supposed to say it. The taboo is what gives the word its power. I don’t think it is possible to answer Eugene’s original question without considering the developmental aspect of cursing, from young childhood to adolescence to adulthood. My gut feeling is that, in addition to expressing anger and other strong emotion, cursing signifies in some way that one belongs to the club and understands adult things (and I agree with AST above that there is some point at which what seemed "adult" flip-flops and comes to sound juvenile; this is a very interesting observation on his/her part).

With respect to the question in an earlier comment about the male analog to the epithet “slut,” the answer, I think, is that there is none. As the Jay book and many other studies make clear, epithets are very gender-specific. What one makes of that fact probably depends to a large extent upon where one stands in the nature-nurture debate. There are excellent arguments by feminists about the ways in which such labels are used to control women's sexuality and to reinforce the sexual double standard. I certainly saw this dynamic in action this year in my daughter's seventh grade class.

And a final word on epithets from another footnote in my article:

Some cultural theorists view language and naming as both reflective and constitutive of social hierarchies of domination and subordination. See, e.g., JUDITH BUTLER, EXCITABLE SPEECH: A POLITICS OF THE PERFORMATIVE 27 (1997) (stating that “[t]he utterances of hate speech are part of the continuous and uninterrupted process to which we are subjected, an on-going subjection . . . that is the very operation of interpellation, that continually repeated action of discourse by which subjects are formed in subjugation”). In contrast, Professor Steven Pinker argues that language is not a “prisonhouse of thought,” but rather is separate from thoughts and attitudes. PINKER, supra note 31, at 210. He notes that “people invent new words for emotionally charged referents, but soon the euphemism becomes tainted by association, and a new word must be found, which soon acquires its own connotations, and so on.” Id. at 212.

In other words, there is an academic debate about whether the negative words work to effectuate social harms (subordination, discrimination) or only describe pre-existing attitudes.
8.3.2005 1:30pm
Grimmy (mail):
Victoria said, "At the root of profanity and obscenities is a need to shock, and to harm, ... but also to express basic human functions like mating, going to the bathroom, and striking out against authority figures like God."

I'd like to add that there are also other needs which may be involved, depending on the situation: e.g. the need to feel grown-up, the need to express anger.

But expressing basic human functions in a manner meant to degrade also strikes at human dignity, reducing us to animals or machines - which is one of the things that makes horror movies horrible, seeing human beings reduced to just flesh and blood objects. This can also be a form of lashing out at God, in whose image we are made - denying that image or the worth of that image.
8.3.2005 4:50pm
Grimmy (mail):
Re: understanding adult things. Strangely, using adult language, like other "adult" activities, necessitates viewing the subject matter in a decidedly non-adult, puerile way. Another topic for discussion ...
8.3.2005 4:53pm
More on Syn4me's question about the male equivalent of "slut":

As Julie said, there isn't one. At least, not for straight men - I'm sure there are some for gay men. The thing is, a man who sleeps with lots of women just isn't regarded with the same contempt as a woman who sleeps with lots of men. People have certainly tried to invent new words for male sluts, but they keep getting turned into positives; for example, "dog" and "pimp" used to be bad, but now guys call each other "pimp dawg" as a compliment. And while men will tend to look down on a man who enters into a long-term relationship with a known slut, women will often tell their friends that persuading a known stud to forgo his harem and settle down is well worth the effort.

As for profanity in general, part of it is certainly the way we're taught to respond to curse words. Substitutes just don't have the same power. For example, one character in the webcomic Fans (I'd link, but it's subscription only) was in the habit of using made-up words like "fark" and "ghu" instead of normal profanity. None of the other characters commented on it as far as I know, but it sounded really strange, especially since he seemed to consider any non-religious use of the word "god" profanity. (Where could our lost friend be? Ghu knows.)
8.3.2005 4:53pm
Mike Hardy (mail):
I thought "fuck" and "shit" were instances of
_vulgarity_, not of profanity.
8.3.2005 5:46pm
Seamus (mail):

I am expanding my 'creative profanity' language and am wondering if anyone knows the male word for 'slut'?

Well, when John Tower was under consideration for Secretary of Defense under the first Pres. Bush, the term "philanderer" was used pretty much as the male analog to "slut." It doesn't quite have the punch of that word, but it seems to have been just as effective in bringing Tower down.
8.3.2005 8:13pm
Geoffrey Barto (mail) (www):
"Cuss" instead of "curse" - that's the first interesting thing to note here. I think, though, that the frequent use of curse words is just part of a pose. Like the white boy with his rap music, this isn't about being angry and enraged. It's pretending to be angry and enraged to "keep real" what is patently fake, namely the notion that a person dropping f-bombs is as engaged in life as a person who is actually doing something.

Vulgarity rankles not because it is vulgar, or even déclassé, but because its use suggests that the user is not aware of an outside world that has better things to do than take in the spectacle of his embarrasssingly poor attempt to play the role of an authentic human being.

Vulgarity used appropriately (hammer on the thumb, etc) is fine, as long as the children are taught to only use their new vocabulary in context (as an earlier poster noted).
8.3.2005 8:46pm
Hamilton Lovecraft (mail):
8.3.2005 10:32pm
Monica (mail):
If "male slut" needs a word, I nominate "clinton." :-)
8.3.2005 10:39pm
AST (mail):
"reeks of snobbery" Does education and manners also reek of snobbery? I guess it does.

We live in a society where using the "N-word" is less objectionable than almost any obscenity. If I have to change "him" to "him or her" (or idiotically "they") so as to avoid someone's sensitivities, or kowtow to someone's ancestry by hyphenating American to it, why does disliking other kinds of degrading and vulgar language constitute snobbery?

People who claim to be liberal seem to have some pretty snobbish views themselves ranging from objecting to fat people to resenting Walmart and McDonalds, even as they proclaim their freedom by dropping f-bombs with every breath. Political correctness is the new Puritanism.

We're so used to justifying everything by asserting freedom of speech, that we don't stop to think what our speech says about us. Respect earns respect. I don't deny anybody their freedom to say what they want, but respect is not subject to legalities. If you want to use obscenities to demonstrate your freedom from taboos you think are silly, fine, but don't expect others to admire you for it. I don't expect to be able to tell people what they can say in my presence, but I can't help drawing conclusions about them from what they say.

If it makes you feel resentful not to have to watch your language, don't let me stand in your way, but don't expect me to value your opinions or your intellect particularly, either.

Self control is a mark of maturity and judgment, and controlling your language is one of the most simple kinds of self control. The whole process of being "brought up" means learning what's acceptable behavior.

It's said that on the internet, no one knows you're a dog, but they may suspect it, if you express yourself like one by leaving your scent markings and droppings behind you.
8.4.2005 12:45am
Victoria (mail) (www):
I've always thought the word 'fricative' sounded naughty, meself.

8.4.2005 3:04am
Victoria (mail) (www):
In fact there is an interesting book about cursing: Timothy Jay, Cursing in America: A Psycholinguistic Study of Dirty Language in the Courts, in the Movies, in the Schoolyards and on the Streets (1992). I suppose this is a shameless plug, but I reference the book in a forthcoming law review article about sexual harassment, sex differences, and evolutionary psychology. The article is entitled "Form and (Dys)Function in Sexual Harassment Law: Biology, Culture, and the Spandrels of Title VII" (forthcoming, Arizona State Law Journal, Vol. 37, p. 321, 2005). It is available at The reference to cursing is at footnote 184.

Fascinating! Thank you so much, Julie. Why do I have a very vague impression I've heard that book before...but even if I did, it obviously didn't leave its mark.

I'll look it up, and the ASU Law School link.

Now, as to the word slut, there was a recent situation on the Mudville Gazzette, where the blog-owner used the 'b-word' for the Lt.-Gov. of Pennsylvania, due to a particularly cheesy action of hers in handing out her business card during the funeral of a fallen miliary hero.

He was at pains to say that he rarely uses this word either in the blog or IRL, or indeed, is particularly blue in conversation in general, but that the action warranted it.

And I agreed (to a point *).

It is precisely at these moments when the thrust of a strong, vulgar word makes a mark, which perhaps due to overuse, would completely have been lost otherwise.

A minor point to make in the modern world of ours, but a valid one, IMO.

*I am no feminist, but whenever I hear 'bitch' from a man, I confess I blanch. It puts my back up immediately. And though he was sweetly apologetic via email, which I told him there was no need to be, that woman was vile, I did mention how I often feel there is no bitch/slut equivalent for men ONLY, and that I do feel is unconsciously misogynistic.

Bah, now I have to bathe, since I am beginning to sound like the late Andrea Dworkin...but at least I don't look like her!

8.4.2005 3:18am
Steve Thomas (mail):
You might regard this post as “hypothesis generating” as it includes only a couple of observations that amused me.

1. During a whitewater canoeing expedition a pair of brothers in the canoe next to mine overturned in a mild section of water. One brother blamed the other for this mishap and loudly called his brother a “son of a bitch.” I thought this was funny enough to mention to a mutual friend who remarked, “That’s like when my Daddy calls me and my brothers ‘You bastards.’”

2. What did the salmon say when he bumped his head on a concrete wall? “Dam”!
This was my 11 year-old nephew’s favorite joke for a while. His mom told me it was because of the naughty language.
8.4.2005 7:40am
Deb O:

Ahem. My response to hearing and reading profane and obscene words is exactly like my reaction.... Well, you get the point.

It isn't that there is no appropriate use of these devices for conveying emphasis - rather that it takes very little to reach the point at which the emphasis ceases to convey added meaning and instead becomes mere shouting.
8.4.2005 8:52am
C Bennett (mail):
J. Rousas Rushdooney has written an extended piece on the sociology of both scatalogical language and "curses" in the more technical sense. It is included as a chapter in his (old) book "The Institutes of Biblical Law." It's interesting.

Apart from the fact that language serves as a harbinger of future action, it is startling the degree to which teenagers express their emotional reactions most often in terms of excrement -- why not the epithet "flowers" or "gold" or anything other than a statement for shock or anger (excrement in some form) or sexual assault.
8.4.2005 11:31am
Gerald Dearing (mail):
I am expanding my 'creative profanity' language and am wondering if anyone knows the male word for 'slut'?

Cad. Bastard. Bounder. Cur. Curl. Heel. Knave. Louse. Lout. Rake. Rogue. Rotter. Rounder. Casanova. Don Juan. Lothario. Adulterer. Chaser. Cruiser. Dallier. Debaucher. Lady-killer. Letch. Letcher. Playboy. Player. Tomcat. Whorehound, Wolf. Womanizer.

Most of these are no longer considered the pejorative that they once were.
8.5.2005 12:07pm