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Posted by ESC on December 03, 2003

In Reply to: Great question & blasphemy too posted by Lotg on December 03, 2003

: : I'm doing some research for a language theory course and was wondering if anyone has any ideas of why it's alright to say the definition of a swear word but not okay to say the word itself. Who defines a swear word?

: That is a great question, and I'd like to know too. However, in my Christian upbringing I was taught that it was sinful to blaspheme (ie. use the name of God in vain). Having said that 'the name of God' in my upbringing extended to other stuff associated with God. eg. Jesus, Hell (admittedly, supposedly on the opposite end of the scale) and variations of the word God, such as goddam or whatever. All of these blasphemous words I was taught, were swear words. But then there are all those other words that I was taught were profane too that seem to have no particular association with Christianity or the Bible, but no-one ever really taught me why.

: Now that I'm no longer a Christian, those 'blashemous' words are meaningless to me. I have since taught my stepdaughter, that my definition of a swear word, is the meaning (or venom if applicable) behind the word, rather than the word itself. eg. I could use the word 'bloody' several times in a sentence and it could simply be a gap filler, poor grammar or even some sort of terms of endearment. However, if I used that word with some bitterness and as an adjective to describe something that was really cheesing me off, then it could become a swear word.

: It's all in the telling (and the intention) methinks.

: Furthermore, there are some words that historically weren't actually swear words, but have evolved to become so.

: Now observe my feeble efforts to censor as I write... eg. the word 's&*t', used to be an acceptable term for defication, even words such as 'bug*(r' and 'f*&k' were once acceptable words. ...sorry, that's the best I can come with in terms of censorship.

: So I can only assume that they evolved into becoming swear words because they are words that describe less than pleasant or socially unacceptable behaviour, so were used in association with insults and thus became insults themselves.

: It begs the question will substitute insults, that are currently not considered swear words, evolve into the status of swear words. eg. In order to be politically correct, I might angrily refer to some intensely annoying woman as 'that stupid cow', rather than the politically unacceptable and apparently profane, 'that stupid bitch'. But does this mean that one day someone will cotton onto the fact that I am intending to be just as insulting to her by calling her a cow, and so the word 'cow' could also become a swear word?

: So I suspect that it's evolution that decides what is, and isn't profanity. But that's just my wild guess.

That is a good question. I am away from my library now but will do some research this evening. What's your deadline? I have several dirty word dictionaries but they are kind of light in the scholarship department. But I'll have a look. What's your deadline?

Who determines swearwords? Well, some are based the religious prohibition against using God's name in vain. (See below.) Others would be based on what a particular society finds abhorrent or what is taboo. Why is it OK to use a swearword in a definition? My guess is that you wouldn't actually be swearing. You're using the word academically

Rummaging in what I already have regarding bad lanaguage:

FOUR-LETTER WORD - " n. a word considered obscene, especially any of several monosyllabic English words referring to the sexual or excretory functions or organs of the human body. It has been argued that the emergency of this euphemism reflects a proliferation in the use of such words during World War I.1934 'American Speech'" For most people, the bare word forms of these four-letter words have become sexual fetishes." From "20th Century Words: The Story of New Words in English Over the Last 100 Years" by John Ayto (Oxford University Press, New York, 1999).

SWEARWORD -- Main Entry: swear·word Pronunciation: 'swar-"w&rd, 'swer- Function: noun Date: 1883 : a profane or obscene oath or word The names of God. Merriam-Webster online.

What is the origin of "God," "Yahweh" and other names of God?
"god. God. The lower-case word summons images of paganism and humankind's primitive past.The upper-case word invokes the single unifying being or oneness who triumphed over polytheism,.. One God. A personal God . 'I am the Lord thy God,' he made clear early on, perhaps as early as 1400 B.C.E, 'thou shall have no other Gods before Me' (Exod. 20:2-3).

Let's start with God's earliest name. YAHWEH: NEAR EAST, c. 1400 to c. 1200 B.C.E. He's Allah to Muslims, a word that in Arabic translates as 'God.' He's 'God the Father' to Christians.To the ancient Israelites, however, he was 'Yahweh.' A personal name. On Mount Sinai, c. 1400 B.C.E., from out of a burning bush, God called to Moses.ordering the prophet to free the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. Startled, Moses asked: 'If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?' (Exod. 3:13)'

God answered cryptically, cloaking his name in four Hebrew consonants: YHWH - called the tetragrammaton, meaning 'four things written.' It is pronounced Yahweh, which has various translations: 'I am who I am,' or 'I shall be what I shall be,' or as some linguists argue, 'He who brings into existence whatever exists.' All three meanings demonstrate how the word 'Yahweh' is related to the Hebrew verb 'to be,' which reaches beyond 'to exist' to encompass 'to be actively present in.'

This connotation of 'active presence' implies that God is with us and active in daily events.(Scribes) combined the unpronounceable YHWH with vowels from two popular old Hebrew terms for God: 'Adonai' and 'Elohim' - arriving at YeHoWah, which Renaissance Christians rendered as Jehovah. This form made its way into the King James Bible. Had the word 'Yahweh' been spoken before Moses heard it on Mount Sinai? Linguists tell us that Yahweh was one of many names for a primary pagan 'god' known to all ancient Semitic peoples before the birth of monotheism."
From "Sacred Origins of Profound Things: Stories Behind the Rites and Rituals of the World's Religions" by Charles Panati (Penguin Books, New York, 1996).

"God. A word common, in slightly varying forms, to all Germanic languages, and coming from a root word related to Old Irish 'guth,' 'voice.' It is in no way connected with the English word 'good.'"
From the "Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Sixteenth Edition, Revised by Adrian Room).

"God or god. n. Old English (about 725) 'god' Supreme Being, deity; cognate with Old Frisian, Old Saxon, and Dutch, 'god,' Supreme Being, deity, Old High German 'got' (modern German 'Gott'), Old Icelandic 'godh,' 'gudh,' and Gothic 'guth,' .The Germanic words for 'god' were originally neuter, but after Germanic tribes adopted Christianity, God became a masculine syntactic form."
From the "Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology" by Robert K. Barnhart (HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1995).

Why is "God" often spelled "G-d"?
"The third of the Ten Commandments reads: 'Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.' (Exodus 20:7). But what is God's name? The biblical reference to God as Yehova (Jehova), spelled out with the Hebrew characters yad, hay, vav, hay, is generally considered the 'authentic' name of God, a name never to be pronounced (except by the High Priest when officiating on Yom Kippur) or written out.

Over the centuries other names for God, such as 'Adonai' (also pronounced 'Adonoy'), 'Lord,' were given the same status. Adonai was (and still is) used only in prayer. On the other occasions 'ha-Shem' or 'Adoshem' were used in its stead. Ha-Shem means 'the Name.' 'Adoshem' is a contraction of Adonai and ha-Shem.

In the last few decades, a new practice has come into vogue: that of not writing out in full the English names 'God' or 'Lord.' Most authorities consider that to be without foundation and no more than a passing fad."
From "The Jewish Book of Why" by Alfred J. Kolatch. Jonathan David Publishers Inc., Middle Village, New York, 1995.