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Getting in line

Posted by ESC on December 03, 2003

In Reply to: Correcting apostrophe (lest I end up in an unmarked grave!) posted by Word Camel 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.

: : I am guessing that many of the words we know as swear words may have been deemed such by the Victorians. In both the United States and Britain the Victorians were preoccupied by the threat of the lower classes (us). They campaigned against drunkeness and prostitution and generally tried to promote their own vision of moral hygene. There were other aspects as well, especially in the United States with its young bourgeoisie where it wasn't always apparent who was respectable and who wasn't. A highly complex etiquette evolved as one way of distinguishing those of "good breeding". For an interesting example of this read Herman Melville's "The Confidence Man", a novel about how Satan assumes various disguises aboard a Riverboat. I am guessing that sanitizing the language and designating some words as swear words may have been part of this process. Bill Byson has a wonderful example of how the "Lower Pleasure Garden" (as distinguished from the Upper Pleasure Garden) in one place he visitied in the UK was renamed something else by the Victorians because lower pleasure was deemed too suggestive.

: : I'm tempted to revisit this next time I have a chance to go to the library but until then I'd be interested to know if anyone else can deny or confirm.

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.

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.