Of Cuss We Do!
Ah, the art of profanity, in all its fucking glory! What got me on to this topic was a recent lunchtime conversation with a couple of girlfriends about the appropriateness of cursing. One of them shared that she’d been accused of cussing like a man. The feminist in me got riled. Why do men get a pass for throwing around expletives when we women have to hold back? Why does Leonardo DiCaprio get to use the “f” word 506 times in The Wolf of Wall Street and it be described as having “a lyrical quality to [it] as it rolls off the tongue,” according to one article on cursing I found? What is it about swearing that is acceptable in some situations and totally unacceptable in others? And why?
It turns out there’s something called the profanity paradox. It is a term coined by Benjamin K. Bergen, author of What the F: What swearing Reveals About Our Language, who explains, “The reason that a child thinks the F-word is a bad word is that, growing up, he or she was told it was a bad word, so profanity is a cultural construct that perpetuates itself through time.” I don’t know about you, but this makes perfect sense to me! What if the kid in A Christmas Story had his mouth washed out with soap for exclaiming “Socks” instead of…well, you know… (it wasn’t “fudge!”) it would’ve probably been just as traumatic. The demonization of certain words is frankly pretty arbitrary; and more surprisingly, pretty recent.
If you’ve ever listened to “old folks” moralize about the “younger generation,” regardless of which generation, you’ve inevitably hear them complain about the language the kids use “these days.” And, I guess it’s true, to a degree. In Ricky and Lucy’s day, a “Gosh, Darn it!” may have raised an eyebrow or two. Today, the president of the United States can talk about shithole countries and have half the US Senate, nay, half the country, come to his defense. Is the pervasive nature of cursing a never-ending slippery slope that started off in Mayberry and will end in Armageddon?
Turns out literature is riddled with profanity, and I’m not just talking about the modernist offerings of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg here. If we dial it back, say, 900 years, we can read some pretty raunchy stuff in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. In The Miller’s Tale, for example, Chaucer describes a tryst between the carpenter’s wife and an assistant to the parish priest, where “…at the window out she putte hir hole / And Absolon, him fil no be ne wers, / But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers.” You don’t have to be an expert in Old English to get the gist! Similarly, in the 1500s Shakespeare used provocative language disguised in poetic form. In Twelfth Night he makes a joking reference to the c-word, and in Hamlet again uses it again in the form of a pun when Hamlet refers to “country matters” as he lays his head in Ophelia’s lap – wink, wink!
If cussing was cool for centuries, when, you might ask, did the Morality-Nazis take away all the fun? Although the Federal Communications Commission might be the 20th-century iteration of the purity police, it turns out those uppity Victorians and their American counterparts have a lot to answer for. New religious and moral societies that sprung from the newly-monied middle class took on the moral guardianship of the poor as a way to leverage their superiority over them; especially as they were never going to be allowed to join the ranks of the upper-class society they so desperately cleaved to, regardless of financial success. Their fix was to create a tier of their own, and part of the identification of this new class involved being polite and reserved and using impeccable manners. Ta-da! Swearing = Bad. And it’s been downhill from there.
So, Mayberry to Armageddon? I doubt it. If society has survived in spite of Chaucer writing about cunnilingus in The Miller’s Tale in the 1300s, I’m sure we’ll survive the president’s p-word, and his s-hole comment. I think we might even survive his F-Bomb when he makes it, because I have no doubt it’s just a matter of time before he does. And let’s face it, an F-bomb is better than any alternative he may have access to, don't you agree?
If you’ve never watched George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words skit, click on the above graphic. Definitely NSFW, but worth a watch. It also prompted legal action all the way to the US Supreme Court!