Words have meaning. Though this might seem obvious, we often don’t use them well, usually out of ignorance or an unwillingness to use even an electronic dictionary. We overuse the words “very” and “great” and misuse the words “extremely” and “infinitely.” But investigating this phenomenon beyond mere ignorance and laziness can be an interesting enterprise. I’m going to embark on such an investigation here, focusing on the category of profanities and obscenities. For a set of words commonly held to be taboo, they are in increasingly common use. I’d like to suggest why these words might appeal to males in particular. (I know this isn’t exclusive to males; no offense is intended.) Also, exuberance overfloweth in this stream of thought, so feel free to bail out and alert the writer that the ship is going down.
I’m going to talk about that one magnetic and flexibly employed word in particular; never fear, I’m not going to spell it out or even use the asterisk version. This makes the article difficult to write and difficult to parse out at first, but the common use of this specific utterance, especially by males, has such deep and multifaceted cultural consequences that the attempt is worthwhile. The increasing ubiquity of its use, among younger and younger people, further warrants discussion. And to be clear, I’m not innocent in this regard, but I believe that discussion can inspire mutual support, friendship, and the betterment of the participants. Trusting the power of the implicit over the explicit, the goal here is not to cut out, but to jumpstart such conversation. I’ll discuss the original meaning of the word, defenses for its use, ways it specifically appeals to males, and appropriate responses when encountering it.
First of all, what does the word in question actually mean? The first written use appears in 1475 in a simple code, denouncing a group of local men of the Church guilty of serial adultery. This tells us a few things: it was associated from the beginning with scandal and sin, in this case a violation of sacramental marriage by those claiming to represent God. It referred to violations of the sacraments of Matrimony and Holy Orders in particular, and a violation of the sacred in general. The word itself was taboo, not to be stated explicitly in print.
Various popular origin accounts explain it as an acronym, for example, for a national command to procreate indiscriminately on the grounds of diminishing population, i.e., fornicate under command/consent of the king. These accounts are generally acknowledged as amusing but spurious. They take delight in explaining away the taboo as legitimate, but have no historical basis. Another somewhat Victorian explanation is that it was simply another word for plowing a field. Why we want to legitimize taboo by associating it with humor or explain it away in a sanitized fashion is an enormous and intriguing question, which I’ll address briefly (and inconclusively) below.
Infrequent printed instances occur in the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and early-twentieth centuries, usually in pornographic publications. It then starts to manifest in ways only the twentieth century could provoke, in military contexts, often in acronyms such as “FUBAR” (a usage implemented effectively in the movie Saving Private Ryan), as a way of describing something violent and perverse, not often with immediate sexual connotations, but still as a descriptor for a disturbing violation of what is good. The military and pornographic usages (don’t equate the two) continue ever onwards. An explosion of imaginative variants appears throughout the 1970s and 1980s, expressing a desire to demean and degrade another human being through sexual violence. This is often not meant to be taken literally, but it is specific and intentional. What we’ll use our imaginations for can be horrific.
To sum up, the word fundamentally references, in some form or combination, perversion of the sacred, perversion of or violence against what is good, sexual violence, intent to humiliate and degrade another person, and delight in the taboo. Skepticism and/or horror aside, some defenses are made for its use, and we should take these seriously if we are to engage in productive conversation.
Common Defenses Made
I’ve encountered the following defenses: this word has changed meanings, is used only for emphasis, has a useful shock value, is humorous, is sometimes necessary for communication, and, ultimately, that profanity isn’t actually bad. I’ve got one more after that if none of the above interest you.
Change in meaning
The most common defense I encounter is that the above meanings have faded away over time, rendering this a mere sound. This is possibly true. Language does change over time, and words lose or take on new meanings. But if it is meaningless, the use of that particular sound is also unnecessary. If a meaningless sound is intended, a meaningless sound should do the trick. If “blech,” “glog,” or “kagromogrifiplaticization” are insufficient, we should ask why. Thinly disguised substitutions don’t count. It would have to be something clearly unlike the word under consideration. I propose that we are not making a meaningless sound precisely because we need it to have meaning, and we need it to be something serious, not silly. If it is supposed to have a serious meaning, we have to look at the origins of the word, or explain what new serious meaning it has taken on.
In the possible but unlikely event that all shades of the original meaning have been forgotten by most of the English-speaking population, and the word is spoken solely in ignorance, the argument for pure emphasis is still weak. Either we revert to one of the other defenses stated here, or we consider the following. Repetition of the same sound or small set of sounds to express emphasis or strong emotion, in addition to being unnecessary, encourages a habitual dismissal of imagination and creativity, resulting in diminished eloquence and communication skills. This also leaves the user open to manipulation by public speakers who employ a large vocabulary meant to overwhelm and impress—or a vocabulary consisting entirely of trite loops relying on an uncritical audience to accept buzzwords without question. Words have meaning, and buzzwords mean little unless the targeted audience is successfully manipulated. If we can understand and use words, we can avoid unthinking regurgitations and inarticulate responses. Profane language, on the other hand, is often a hallmark of these. Emphasis should enhance rather than diminish. Otherwise it defeats its own purpose. Shoots itself in the foot. Becomes lame.
Shock targets the innocent, intentionally or unintentionally destroying that innocence. If this is intentional, it is abhorrent. If unintentional, it is still degrading. The entertainment industry sometimes seems in competition with itself to see how many times a movie, for example, can slam the word in your face. The Wolf of Wall Street is more famous for record uses of the word than for the actual story it tells.
On the other hand, I did find in one published research article an anecdotal instance of use for shock value that I found somewhat compelling, as it deliberately targeted the guilty rather than the innocent. An ESL student, just moved to a new country, confided to her teacher that she was being physically harassed by her boss. This kind of predatory behavior does require an immediate and decisive response, and the student was as yet unable to articulate herself clearly. The teacher’s solution was to teach the student the sentence (edited), “Get the – off me.” That sound coming from an apparently innocent target could possibly shock the predator away. The strategy in this case was successful. This is also a combination of circumstances that has no guarantee of success, especially because predators are already drawn to perversion, and can easily open the door to the language habits described above.
“Dirty” jokes can be funny, no question. But I also think jokes which imply rather than state tend to be funnier. Shakespeare (for those who want to go classic) loves disguising ribald jokes in apparently innocent language. Witness Malvolio’s description of the love letter in Twelfth Night. Upstart Will has far less subtle verbal wordplay than that in most of his works. But this kind of joke allows the innocent to remain innocent, and such a word without a double meaning or a punchline merely drops it into one of the other categories discussed here. Most often, at least by professional comedians, the word is not used for specific humor but simply a way of bragging about being able to get away with blaring out the taboo in public. An exception that occurs to me is the brief cameo one-liner by Wolverine in X-Men: First Class. Wolverine’s response to Xavier and Lehnsherr is funny because it is unexpected. It isn’t predictable, and it’s hilarious.
Connecting with another person often entails imitating their vocabulary to demonstrate acceptance. However, conversation either uplifts or degrades your interlocutor. No one word is absolutely essential to imitation, and focusing on the better words is better for the other person. An argument can also be made for using language to imitate another person’s speech in art: books, movies, plays. Unfortunately, sometimes this is simply an accurate portrayal. The only solution I see to this is changing a culture in which profanity and obscenity are the go-to expressions, and that culture change can only start with individual and familial habits of speech.
Swearing isn’t actually bad
This one is either the most pernicious or the most laughable. Let’s take it most seriously. If it isn’t bad, it is either a meaningless habit, or it serves some good. If it is meaningless to you, then respect the meaning it had and elevate your own way of speaking. The other option is that swearing is actually good. I have a tough time coming up with an explanation of it as a good habit, nourishing to the soul, and moving us toward greater dignity and strength. Again, this seems laughable. The truth is that we use profanities and obscenities because we know they are in the forbidden zone. When they are no longer forbidden, they no longer accomplish their purpose. And so to stay in the forbidden zone, we move on to something else meaningful and profane. This explains how communities large and small start with “mild” profanities (d— used to be a big deal), and move on to try out f— and c— when the “mild” becomes increasingly common. If this is too abstract, read the section on Emphasis again. If nothing else, repetition of meaningless sounds kills your vocabulary and your imagination, and hampers your ability to think and see more clearly. You become weaker, and reveling in that exacerbates the problem.
Appeal to the Masculine
These are the defenses I’ve found and my attempts to respond. Now let’s move on to a more interesting facet of the conversation, which is why this word might have a particular appeal to males. Personally, I have witnessed the following three: exploring the forbidden, challenging another person, and requesting friendship.
Exploring the forbidden
There is a drive, distinctive of though not limited to the masculine, to explore the unknown. Go into the deepest cave, track down the wildest most poisonous creatures, find newer reaches of the globe and of space. Why climb Mount Everest? Because it is there. Now, exploring the unknown (or the dangerous) is not necessarily the same as exploring the forbidden. There is a difference, for example, between throwing rocks at a little kid and collecting rocks while spelunking. The latter is a self-challenge, a test of strength and character, the former (besides being vicious) is easy. Using profanity is easy and moreover, fraudulent, for it gives the impression of power in a cowardly act. A real challenge would be tempering one’s language for a day, or a week, or a month. Actually try it, and check in with a friend, not just yourself. Consult some genuine map in the form of a mentor and some critical reading before you explore. That will be a test of your mental and social strength.
Challenging another person
Guys like to and need to challenge each other, physically and vocally. Our culture widely agrees that organized sports and/or personal training are good physical challenges. Vocal challenges, on the other hand, often (not always) take the forms of truly unsportsmanlike taunting, mud-slinging, and profanity. In this context profanity can be used either to abuse the other person, which is abominable, or to gain their respect by establishing verbal as well as physical dominance. Gaining respect through exercising integrity of speech is superior to blurting out the first stereotypical word that other people tell you is the way to speak. Profane speech is like steroids and equivalents said to be safe. These things seem to make you stronger right now, but harm you in the long run physically and mentally.
Addictions don’t just go away, and that includes addiction to profanity. If you can’t help using it, you’re not in control of yourself, never mind another person. So what is the right way to challenge another person in speech? One way is to turn the tables and take them by surprise. They aren’t expecting you to say something funny or say something complimentary. Andrew Luck apparently was in the habit of saying, “Nice play,” when he got sacked. If you feel that this is weak, aren’t sure about trying it out, or just don’t have the guts, keep in mind that sometimes it’s better to say nothing for the sake of your own integrity. Give your willpower a workout.
Request for friendship
I’ve seen this one happen, and I find it intriguing. It is a kind of challenge, the equivalent of saying, “Will you still accept me if I do something in the forbidden zone?” In other words, the request is loaded with fear and insecurity. Fear and insecurity are understandable and common, which is precisely why we need to step outside our comfort zones. Cursing in this context is a way of hiding. It’s cowardly. Talk to someone who can help you speak courageously rather than defaulting to the generic or trying to figure it out on your own.
And one more….
I could be wrong here, but I think the main reason we use this word is because we like to. We defend it because we want to continue to like it. Most often it doesn’t seem more complicated than that. And sometimes constantly giving in to the little things we like to do isn’t good for us. To use a tame example, eating only jelly beans all day everyday sounds great at first, but you’ll get pretty sick pretty fast, and life will be no fun, to say the least. It’s worth considering which little tiny moments of pleasure make us stronger and which make us weaker.
Now we’ve gone over origins, defenses, and reasons why it is appealing, but we can’t just explain why something is broken if we’re not going to fill up the tool belt and get to work. I’ve got a few suggestions.
First, unquestionably and irreplaceably, is example. People who admire us (or they think they should) are going to imitate the way we speak, especially younger people. Whether intentionally or not, if we give children, especially males, the impression that profanity is a significant mark of strength and maturity, they will practice that. Because it is easy, and if they have no other example, they will prefer that over practicing inner strength and integrity.
Another tool in the belt is conversation. You’ll have to put on your true friend/sincere mentor hat for this one. Make a game plan. What will you say if the right opportunity comes up? I hope some of the suggestions here are useful. Sometimes it may be asking the other person what they’re actually trying to say when they use profanity. But sometimes the right thing may be saying nothing at all in response to persistent profanity. Whether you respond or not to the language of others, admit when you’re guilty of the same thing and have the courage to ask forgiveness.
The last suggestion is to keep mercy at the forefront of your mind. Society, superiors, peers, and friends can be merciless. A merciless culture automatically condemns without allowing hope of restoration. But a culture full of mercy, whether it be global, national, familial, or between two individuals, is one which will accept the risks of freedom. Allowing freedom of speech is a risk because that freedom will be abused, and that abuse will corrupt and corrode. But if we are not free to speak as we wish, we will never be able to choose to speak well, or learn to speak the truth.