Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Swearing (and, yes, this post contains some)

What constitutes a swear word, or foul language, in society obviously changes over time. Swear words are meant to be offensive. Interestingly, though, what is considered offensive probably tells us a great deal about the society of the day.

Once upon a time, expressions such as ‘Jesus Christ’, ‘God Almighty’ and ‘Damn’ would have been considered highly offensive. Perhaps in some societies, or some corners of some societies, they still are today. ‘Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain’ is one of the first three of the ten commandments.—It is worth a slightly lengthy aside here to point out that it is far from clear what precisely constitutes these ‘ten commandments’, to which people refer so freely. There are several versions and formulations of them. It is also worth pointing out that when people claim that ‘keeping the ten commandments’ is somehow at the heart of Christian (or contemporary secular) morality, they almost always disregard the first three or four, of which the commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain is generally considered to be one.—A society in which religious (in this case usually Christian) belief is taken seriously will certainly consider such language offensive, if not blasphemous. The fact that our society scarcely even regards ‘Jesus Christ’ or ‘Godammit’ as swearing tells us a great deal. To become offensive these days one probably has to say ‘Jesus H. Fucking Christ’, or something similar… Which brings us neatly to what modern Australian society does consider to be swearing.

It’s not a coincidence, surely, that most contemporary swear words and phrases contain a reference to one of four things: (1) human genitalia; (2) human sexual intercourse; (3) the act of excreting waste; or (4) the bodily parts from which such excretion occurs. Words related to these things become our swear words. These are the words we use when we want to shock or offend, or to express most strongly our anger, pain or distress. In this we are, surely, still expressing our Christian heritage which, despite modern protestations to the contrary, has generally regarded ‘the body’ as something base and fallen; and bodily functions such as the act of excretion and the act of sex as expressions of our fallenness and corruption. These things are still considered in our society, at least at an unconscious level, as slightly ‘dirty’ or, at best, ‘naughty’ or ‘rude’. Even quite respectable words for body parts, such as ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’, will still elicit a giggle among our children—and not only our children. Our embarrassment about these aspects of being human, when it is not expressed via swearing, comes out in humour. Fart jokes, after all these years, still get a laugh.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we found things other than our bodily parts and bodily functions offensive or embarrassing. Wouldn’t it be interesting if, when I wanted to curse you, instead of inviting you to partake in a sexual activity, I condemned you to poverty. Wouldn’t it be interesting if, when I wanted to insult you, instead of comparing you to a bodily part, I compared you to, say, a gun. Calling someone a ‘young gun’ would then become the highest form of insult. Instead of saying, ‘Get fucked, you dick’, I might instead say, ‘Go hungry, you pistol’. Should the day arrive when this was so, it might indicate that what our society really found offensive was starvation and dangerous weapons, rather than the sex act and the sex organ.

Can’t see that day coming soon, though.

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