Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.
— Mark Twain
I love words. I love all words. They tie us to a common anchor of communication. The myriad ways we have to convey complex ideas and concrete information gives humans a great advantage over many species. And yet, some words are despised. Not because of anything intrinsic — they are just sequences of letters/sounds, after all — but because of societal taboos. Even with a shared language, a word that is considered vulgar in one place isn’t thought of in the same way in another. Sometimes it doesn’t even require a change in societal venue…the same dichotomy can be within just one person. Me, for instance.
Children in America, it seems, are exposed to words generally considered to be vulgar not long after exiting the womb. It’s almost astonishing not to hear young children spew forth dirty words with a fluency lacking in many adults. I don’t remember it always being so.
Twelve years. That’s how long it took for me to learn my first profane word. Not just the sound or the spelling, but the meaning. Perhaps for that reason, “s**t” has a special place in my linguistic history. Until then, the only words I’d heard that I was specifically told not to say were: “hell”, unless making a biblical reference, “damn” or more specifically “g**damn”, and even “God” when referring to anything other than the accepted deity. Sure, in 2nd grade “the bird” was demonstrated to me by a friend of mine at the schoolyard after-hours (living the cliche), but I didn’t know what it meant. When I proudly showed what I’d learned to my father, I was admonished to not show it again. I didn’t…at least, not for a very long time.
And yeah, there were slips by adults, but I didn’t know what the words meant. People would talk about “dirty words”, but I didn’t know what they were or why they were dirty. Then, in seventh grade things changed. Slowly, I started to figure some of this out. The words were used, but their meanings were elusive. Bit-by-bit, through inference and deduction, I figured out what many of them meant. (No, I never asked anyone. That would have been simple.)
Then the part of the brain that responds to profanity was awakened. A friend of mine played for me a comedy album that changed the way I viewed these verboten words. The comedian: George Carlin. He taught me the “seven words you can’t say on television”. I memorized it. I rehearsed it. I regurgitated it to my friends to and from school. I embraced that the “dirty words” weren’t, you know, dirty in and of themselves. After a fashion, I also learned that these words, in certain situations, could be cutting.
During my period of profanity deflowering, I lost my fear of the words themselves. I can still be a true vulgarian (it’s said that computer programmers know all the profanities). But I re-found the filter. It seems that, as I was doing so, the rest of society lost theirs. Perhaps it was the explosion of non-FCC-regulated language content that has fed the cable/satellite entertainment explosion; perhaps it was the growth of shock-TV; whatever it was, it’s clear that the gag has pretty much been removed.
The current state of “worty-dirds” leaves me ambivalent. I’m pleased that they’ve managed to crawl out from that dark place. They are just words, after all. On the other hand, they have become over-used. “F-bombs” are now, at best, “F-party-poppers”. I think what saddens me more is that these words take up so much of the vocabulary of the young. Not that I think there’s much of a lost innocence (clearly I was anomalous, given that my friends were much more advanced in this area), but a loss of linguistic fitness. The easy invectives have replaced colorful metaphors.
One area that amuses me is the linguistic substitution. To me, an “oh darn” or “mercy sakes” or other such “clean” phrasology is just as profane as if actual curse words were used. It’s never been about the words, per se, but the intent. I have in my lexicon a number of words that are substituted for those society frowns upon. It doesn’t make my intent any different, it’s just that this different vocabulary is considered less offensive. Dang if it doesn’t make me shake my head and smile.
I guess what saddens me the most is that the power of profanity has been lessened. When dirty words no longer have the power to shock, then something is lost. Not that I think they should again be swept away into the shadowy places of communication, but it would be nice if they could be restored to their former glory.