Several weeks ago the editors at the Philadelphia Inquirer debated whether to allow more dirty words in the newspaper. There was talk of...
Several weeks ago the editors at the Philadelphia Inquirer debated whether to allow more dirty words in the newspaper. There was talk of loosening the restrictions on damn, which we’ve long placed in our category of lesser offenders though it implies something horrendous — condemnation to hell (a word we’re also easing up on).
Topping our list of the worst possible words is the F-word, though in its literal sense it conveys something very nice. Writers are not specifically forbidden to use it, but there are enough hoops to jump through that nobody has broken the F-barrier yet.
It’s listed in our highest security class of obscenity, along with three synonyms for penis, two for vagina, two slang terms for oral sex, two variants on animal-waste products and one expression that employs the F-word in an oedipal context.
What does this say about our society, and is there any scientific explanation for why people yell out a word for sex when they stub their toes?
Linguists tend to speak not of bad words but of linguistic taboos. Most cultures have such taboos, but they vary wildly, says University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman, author of “Far From the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches From Language Log,” which refers to his blog: itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/.
Some cultures create elaborate rules about mixing sex and speech, he says. In parts of New Guinea, you’re not allowed to have sex with anyone who shares your primary language. Luckily, people there know lots of languages, so they generally manage. Some aboriginal Australians have a sort of incest-related taboo against speaking with the family of your spouse. All words in their primary language are forbidden, so they create artificial “mother-in-law languages” to talk to their mothers-in-law.
For general taboo words, religious expressions are huge, and there’s often a superstitious element involved, Liberman says. In some places, people think that if you utter the names of certain deities, you might attract their attention in a bad way.
Bodily function words, while popular, are not universally taboo. In Finnish, Liberman says, all sexual acts and sex organs can be expressed in language clean enough for Ann Landers. You can’t employ Finnish sexual words to swear, he says, since it would come out something like “Oh, intercourse!”
Liberman knows all kinds of fascinating bad-word facts. For example, the earliest record of typographical bleeping of the F-word is in an English legal document from 1698 detailing the arrest of Capt. Edward Rigby for attempting to “F-” another man.
Overall, the scientific evidence suggests swearing is good for you, says psycholinguist Timothy Jay of Massachusetts College of the Liberal Arts and author of “Cursing in America.”
We’re the only animal that can curse, he says, which sometimes helps us avoid physical violence. “It allows us to express our emotions symbolically and at a distance.” For example, Jay says, when a woman was weaving in front of him on the road that morning he was able to call her a “dumb ass” instead of getting out of his car and biting her.
To further understand swearing, Jay studied people with Tourette’s syndrome because they sometimes involuntarily blurt out swear words. He found the words tend toward the most unacceptable in their native tongues.
For the rest of us, he said, as a general rule, the most stress-relief mileage comes from the most taboo words in one’s personal culture.
The British have a slightly different swearing vocabulary, favoring bloody, bollocks and another b-word that ends like skulduggery. Last year, a copy editor expunged that word from one of my columns. We can’t say it because it means anal sex, which we can say.
Americans, in contrast, rely heavily on our F-word.
In addition to helping Dick Cheney refrain from biting all the Democrats in Congress, it represents the most direct and concise English term for sexual intercourse.
Some commentators have warned that we’re wearing out the poor word with gross overuse, draining it of its original cathartic power. But Jay says we have nothing to worry about.
It’s an old word, possibly stemming from German and not an acronym for For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, as urban legend has it. It’s been part of the English language for more than 1,000 years, he said, and it’s still so taboo you can’t say it on most TV channels or in school. Or in the newspaper.