literary post of the week, research, Writing

History of Profanity, Part 2

DISCLAIMER:  There are a lot of vulgar words in this post.  If you would find these words offensive, PLEASE READ NO FURTHER!

In the last post, I concentrated on profanity and cursing. Most of what is considered profanity in the 21st century is vulgarity, which again, is a misnomer. The word vulgarity comes from the Latin, and at base, means people who were not citizens of Rome, but who were from the provinces. Provincial people spoke “vulgar” Latin, meaning “not correct,” and eventually, “unacceptable.”

Vulgarism is a very interesting subject. Often the argument is made that people use vulgarisms because they have a limited vocabulary. I disagree. Most vulgar words are very satisfying to say. They are single syllables, with lots of staccato consonants, and they roll off the angry tongue in a wonderful way: crap, shit, cunt, fuck.

The other vulgarities that roll off the tongue are the multi-syllabic combinations: motherfucker, cocksucker, son of a bitch, bastard. The first two combine in iambic meter that rivals Shakespeare. Despite what one personally thinks about using vulgarisms, their use is not confined to those who have no vocabulary.

When my youngest son was about 10, he used to upbraid his brother (often with reason) using vulgar language. After I sat him down and explained that it made him sound like he had a limited vocabulary (I have changed my mind since then), he became more inventive. The next day when I came home from work, he informed me that his brother had eaten all the food in the house, and was “a gluttonous whore.” It suddenly became obvious to me that lack of vocabulary was not a problem, if my 10-year-old was speaking like someone from 1710.

Popular vulgarisms tend to cover the subjects of bodily functions or parts, including sex: shit, piss, fart, fuck, cock, cunt, tits, ass, prick, suck, bugger; parentage: whoreson, bastard, son of a bitch; and unsavory occupations, whore. None of these terms started life as vulgarisms. Chaucer uses several of them in the Canterbury Tales; Shakespeare’s Nurse in Romeo and Juliet says that “Time has her hand on the prick of noon.” Although a classmate of mine walked out of our Shakespeare class at that, no one in Shakespeare’s time would have been as gravely offended.

Of the various taboo words, shit, cunt and fuck are among the worst. Cunt is from the Vulgar Latin term for vagina, even though it has not been raised to a respectable level. Shit was the Anglo-Saxon term for excrement. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the Norman French marginalized Anglo-Saxon, and the word became vulgar. Fuck is not Anglo-Saxon, as it did not reach England until the early 1600’s, by way of the Dutch word meaning to strike or pound.

One thing I find fascinating about all of this pother about vulgarisms is not only were they acceptable terms at another time, but that, almost despite themselves, people who are offended by vulgarisms are verifying the power of words. In my own personal experience, I have been wounded most by words that were not vulgar but rejecting, nullifying, belittling.

One of my favorite quotations is from Sir Thomas Browne, 1605-1682. “Scholars are men of peace; they bear no arms, but their tongues are sharper than Actius’s sword, their pens carry farther, and give a louder report than thunder.” This is often misquoted as “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Words are powerful, life-affirming or soul-crushing. To give some of these terms more power than others is to miss the point.

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7 thoughts on “History of Profanity, Part 2”

  1. I was given a mug that has various insults taken from Shakespeare. They are delightfully vicious. People at work know that if they are talking to me, and I start playing with my mug, it’s time to step away from the administrative assistant!

  2. No matter the age, humanity tends to cling to language that is–while terribly expressive–extremely degrading. I don’t say this in reference as to the people they use it on, but to themselves. And why? Because there is a socially perceived acceptance and disapproval of certain words. Whether the words are important or not isn’t the point, it’s using them while knowing what their use means in society. It’s branding yourself by your language.

  3. When we studied Romeo and Juliet in my freshman year of high school, my teacher gave us a handout with all sorts of permutations of Shakespearean insults, which we had WAY too much fun tossing about.

    I love what you say about the power of words and language. As I study text in my day job, the importance of language, and the meaning carried by individual words, is always at the forefront of my mind. Some of the most damaging words (or, perhaps I should say, the words with the most damaging effects) are ones that are disguised behind a veneer of respectability. Words are imbued history, and they serve to reinforce systems of power.

    Anyway, I could ramble about this for ages but I will cut myself off here. Lovely post!

  4. I am SO glad you shared these links with me. First, I love stuff like this in nearly any form – I find language fascinating. I particularly like this – “Often the argument is made that people use vulgarisms because they have a limited vocabulary.” I once had a boss accuse me of this when he eavesdropped on a conversation of mine at a local bar. When I was done thoroughly explaining everything that was wrong with his assessment and behavior he turned to his partner and asked him to translate. And then began asking me to compose his letters for attorneys.

    If you’ve never read it, you may be interested in The Alphabet Versus the Goddess – a look at the impact of the written language on the wiring of the brain and how it influenced culture on a nearly universal level – I first read it in college and have picked it up a couple of times since.

    1. My apologies for not replying before now, Lynette! I thought I had done so *blush* Thank you for the kind words, and for letting me know about The Alphabet versus the Goddess. It sounds very interesting.

      Have a wonderful holiday!

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