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Dirty Words

If you can't say something nice, go right ahead.

In Praise of Profanity, by Michael Adams, Oxford University Press, 272 pages, $17.95

Oxford University PressOxford University PressI came of age in the era of gangsta rap. As a kid, I was baffled by the "clean" versions of songs—the radio edits of Eazy-E's "Eazy Duz It" and Dr. Dre's "Nothin' But a G Thang"—which were basically just the "dirty" versions with the expletives bleeped out. I certainly knew exactly what words were being removed. Why, I wondered, was the bleeping sufficient to make the song radio-friendly?

My parents raised me not to use "bad" language, but late in elementary school my friends and I learned both how to curse and how to turn off our cursing when grown-ups were around. Just as I wasn't supposed to curse around adults, I was, in some sense, expected to curse around my friends.

Such experiences are explained in Michael Adams' In Praise of Profanity. The book's argument is not that we should use more profanity. It's that profanity evolved within the spontaneous order we call language to perform certain functions. Eliminate profanity and you'll eliminate those functions, making language less powerful.

To talk about the ins and outs and shoulds and shouldn'ts of profanity, we need to distinguish it from slang, obscenity, or just plain coarse language. Adams, a linguistic historian at Indiana University Bloomington, rejects the idea that profanity is inherent in certain words. The profanity of any particular word depends on contextual factors, including the norms of the group where the word is uttered. "Fuck" can be profane ("Go fuck yourself!"), or it can simply be slang ("What the fucking fuck?"). "I'm sick of this shit!" might not be profane among one group of friends; "I'm about to drop a deuce!" would qualify among another, even though the sentence contains no profane words. As with any evolved social system, language's rules are context-dependent, and the rules about what differentiates profanity from slang or just bad manners is context-driven.

Within those contexts, profanity can perform vital functions. Anti-profanity crusaders (look up the No Cussing Club) argue that cursing makes you less articulate and that there are always words we could use in place of profane ones. Wanna bet? Profanity is expressive speech, and as such, synonyms are often imperfect substitutes. It is hard to imagine, for instance, a non-profane way to express that someone is a motherfucker. ("Dirty rascal" just doesn't do it.) When someone cuts off a lane of traffic, what clean alternative will have the same bite as "asshole"? Sometimes, the point of a sentence is to jar, sting, or offend. As long as language needs words that serve those purposes, profanity will be a necessary component of language.

Profane words are also useful for fostering intimacy and solidarity with others. Adams argues that this is "because they carry risk—so that the use of them demands trust." A little dirty talk can improve someone's sex life, for instance, precisely because it means you trust your partner not to take offense—or to go further than your comfort zone. Profanity is hardly the only way to achieve intimacy, but no "clean" language carries profanity's risk, and that makes it a useful tool to build interpersonal trust.

Adams illustrates profanity's power to foster group solidarity by invoking a satirical "children's" book for adults. A surprise bestseller, Go the Fuck to Sleep depicts a frustrated parent wishing to tell a child to go to sleep, but with forceful profanity. The secret to the book's success is the profanity, which is funny to anyone who has been a parent precisely because it's a kind of risky inside joke: "Yup, I remember being that frustrated at my kid that I wanted to call her a fucking asshole…but resisted." Take away the profanity, and the joke is lost.

Adams also discusses the psychology of why we use euphemisms in lieu of actual cursing—replacing, say, "shit" with "the s word." Adams suggests that sometimes we deploy such replacements out of politeness or respect for situational norms. "No freakin' way" stands less chance of offending people than its uncensored counterpart. But that can't be completely right, because when we hear someone say "the s word," we all hear "shit." Many words begin with s, but we know which one the speaker has in mind.

And so he offers a deeper explanation: A euphemism is a palimpsest, a modification of language that still bears traces of its original form. Calling someone you dislike a "b" rather than a "bitch" is less the avoidance of profanity than a way to smuggle profanity into an environment where it wasn't supposed to go. In that way, Adams argues, euphemisms are a type of profanity themselves.

Profanity is useful not just in our day-to-day interactions but also in art. In the book's closing section, Adams examines how profane language enriches three popular creative works.

The TV series The Sopranos contains a lot of profanity (Adams gives us the stats), yet the lion's share occurs in scenes where violence is being either discussed or enacted. These sequences are laced with emotion, and profanity helps convey that emotion. How Late It Was, How Late—the Booker Prize–winning novel about a down-and-out Glaswegian named Sammy—is similarly laced with offensive words. But while some critics found the book obscene, author James Kelman was just trying to depict the real dialect of the working-class characters. And the music of eclectic singer-songwriter Nellie McKay, as Adams puts it, lets her "sing dirty while sounding nice." A sparing use of profanity deliberately disrupts her initial image as a clean-cut female songstress—a way to alert listeners to the fact that the pretty singer with pretty songs doesn't always want to act pretty.

Those are very different reasons to use profanity. But in each case, the results could not be achieved as effectively in other ways.

Words emerge, live, and die by a complex and ongoing social negotiation. So do the informal rules about when and where we can use them. This is in stark contrast to the formal rules the Federal Communications Commission tries to impose on broadcast media—regulations that often ignore words' context and evolution. There is no context-independent answer to whether a term is a legitimate linguistic expression. Both individually and collectively, we make up the answers as we go.

Photo Credit: Oxford University Press

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Just for that, I'm going to do my darndest to refrain from prfanity this entire thread.

  • SQRLSY One||

    "Excuse me, I have to go and make a Hillary".

    Is that profane, vulgar, slang, or totally kosher?

  • SQRLSY One||

    OK, I am back now, mission accomplished...

    This darned "Hillary" that I just made? It was SOOO large, I was not sure, shall I spank it or flush it? It smelled so bad that I thought that no nearly-infinite series of diaper changes would EVER fix it! So I decided to just go ahead and flush it... FLU.....SH..IT, I say!!!

  • Grand Moff Serious Man||

    Son of a biscuit-eating bulldog!

  • Charles Easterly||

    I, for one, enjoyed the wood chipper reference.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    My father when my sister, brother, or mother were around.

    "Cheese and rice! What's going on up there?"

    "Fudge fudge fudge fudge fudge!"

    When he was with me:

    "God damn son of a bitch. Damnit damnit damnit damnit. Shit."

  • aelhues||

    My kids are allowed to swear. I just explained that there are people that will be offended, that it's not worth or that they wouldn't want to offend if they didn't know how to control it.

    Despite that freedom, none of them swear at home or anywhere else. An unforeseen consequence is that some other kids are kinda put off when they find out that my kids won't swear even though they're allowed to.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    When I was younger my Mom convinced my sister to say "Snickerdoodle" instead of "Shit". When she finally started using Snickerdoodle in normal speech my Mom lambasted her for swearing still because she knew she just meant "shit".

    It was funny to me, and validates several of the ideas put forth in the article above.

  • EDG reppin LBC||

    Fuck fuckitty fuck.

    Shitballs!!

  • Mongo||

    Virginia lawmaker, Republican Robert Marshall, wants to criminalize pornography.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Suck a bag of penises, vagina!

  • Mongo||

    I've heard a few comedians say that cursing makes for funnier material - with which I'm in agreement .

    Leno brags about doing clean jokes. It all makes sense....

  • Swiss Servator||

    Problem is that many will simply drop a torrent of profanity, substituting it for actual humor.

    Try listening to a Bob Newhart routine.

  • RBS||

    Yeah, there is an art to using profanity to enhance a joke/bit/story.

  • ||

    We had that same reaction when we saw Tim Conway. Fucking hilarious. Ditto Larry Miller. And not a single f-bomb.

    Look at some of the old Lenny Bruce routines on YouTube. He was a pioneer in the use of profanity and... not very funny.

    That said, Sam Kinison reliably caused me to work hard to avoid incontinence, and seeing him live was one of the funniest experiences I ever had.

    Conclusion: profanity and humor are just not correlated, either positively or negatively.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Brian Regan is really funny, too.

  • Mongo||

    Hmmm.... I wouldn't consider Tim Conway anyways near hilarious.

    I do agree with you on Lenny Bruce.

  • ||

    His one man show was fantastic. He just told stories in a perfectly deadpan way, emphasis on "perfectly."

  • Crusty Juggler||

    We had that same reaction when we saw Tim Conway.

    I have the mental image of a very old man commenting about diddling kids, and pretending to be a person named "Riven" while listening to the soothing sounds of Dorf on Golf.

  • Swiss Servator||

    Kinison knew how to use it properly.

    Could you ever listen to an Andrew Dice Clay routine a second time and get anything out of it?

  • ||

    I couldn't even last through the first time.

  • Rasilio||

    Yeah but he was ....

    Unbelievable

  • Francisco d'Anconia||

    Eddie Murphy

    Delirious ...hilarious

    Raw...pathetic

  • ||

    Agreed on both counts. "Goonie goo goo."

  • Crusty Juggler||

    I also concur. Two other comedians who rarely - if ever swore: Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Cosby. They were both masters.

  • Mongo||

    Uff da.....

  • KDN||

    I saw Craig Shoemaker a couple of years back and he absolutely killed without (or with very limited) use of profanity. This was surprising considering the venue and the crowd.

  • straffinrun||

    I can't imagine Bill Burr w/o the profanity. And I love Bill Burr. The pasty freckled fuck can go fuck himself.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    That's because if you heard anyone speaking with a Southie accent not swearing constantly it would sound wrong.

  • Mongo||

    Newhart's too dry for me.

  • Swiss Servator||

    I would concede that point.

    I often like my humor dry as a bowl of dust.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    What's your opinion on Steven Wright or Dmitri Martin?

  • Mongo||

    I love absurdist humor so I'm a Wright fanboy.

    Don't know who Dmitri Martin is!

  • The Fusionist||

    Why did the fucking chicken cross the road?

    To fucking get to the other fucking side, you fuck!

  • The Fusionist||

    Oh, I'm sorry, I meant to say "cross the *fucking* road."

  • Ska||

    Doggy. Montana. Pillow. Horse fucker.

  • Will4Freedom||

    I've always avoided profanity, probably thanks to Sister Mary Sadist... or a well spoken English teacher I really respected in high school. But I have some step daughters that would fit right in with my biker friends or my shipmates back when I was in the Navy.

    Funny how no matter how much I'm surrounded by foul language, I still opt not to use it. It's such a deep part of me, it would seem phony to attempt to use profanity now.

  • Swiss Servator||

    Profanity is best not overused. If so, it has no impact - when you hear a normally non-profane person employ a choice word, it carries some weight.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    So, fuckin', I go to the fuckin' Starbucks, right, and there is this fuckin' guy behind the fuckin' counter who looks exactly fuckin' like that fuckin' pajama boy fuck. So, I fuckin' say to the fuckin' guy, "hey, it's nice to see out of jam-jams and in big boy clothes." No, fuck me running I said it. No, fuck you, I swear to fuck, I fuckin' said that. And guess what this fuckin' chooch says back to me? Guess what this fuck has the balls to say? Want to fuckin' hear it? Okay. This fuck says, "what?" Fuckin' a, right? Like he doesn't fuckin' know? Fuck.

  • Will4Freedom||

    See? Now my version of that story would be like...

    "I saw a guy at Starbucks that looked like pajama boy, but it wan't him."

    It just doesn't have the same impact.

    Happy New Year!

  • Bronson, Missouri||

    I think that's the key - not overusing it. Overuse can be kind of lazy or even faux-edgy (which is really annoying).

  • ||

    I fucking thought fucking you was fucking in the fucking army? What the fuck is up with fucking that?

  • Swiss Servator||

    I was, and except for some creative drill sgt cussing, it did not carry much wieght. But to hear a normally straight laced Colonel or Brigadier General let fly an expletive....that would make the whole TOC hush and take strict notice.

  • ||

    At work, the standing joke is that if I got Tourette's, no one could tell.

  • ||

    Officers?! /Rolls eyes.

  • ant1sthenes||

    The knights of standards and practices would agree.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Verball, I don't swear simply because it's not part of the way I speak. Somehow people misinterpret this as being potentially offended by it.

    Despite all the kvetching I do online, I'm actually very phlegmatic and don't react much to what other people say or do (unless it is something that necessitates an action or defense, etc)

    Occassionally, I even get a chuckle out of Citizen X's antics.

  • RBS||

    I don't swear much anymore either. I think I got most of it out of my system spending my high school years living in a dorm with other high school guys.

  • lafe.long||

    my shipmates back when I was in the Navy.

    Funny how no matter how much I'm surrounded by foul language, I still opt not to use it. It's such a deep part of me, it would seem phony to attempt to use profanity now.

    Back home on leave after Navy boot camp at a family dinner, "Hey Ma, pass the fuckin' potatoes"

  • Swiss Servator||

  • Glide||

    When someone cuts off a lane of traffic, what clean alternative will have the same bite as "asshole"?
    -x-
    I actually find clean, biting sarcasm works a lot better for me to let off steam.

    "Oh, that was a greeeeaaaat lane change champ. Well done! *sarcastic clap* Give the man a medal!"

  • thom||

    I've been trying (and becoming much more successful) at not reacting at all to anything that happens in traffic. When somebody wrongs you in traffic one of two things happen: they look to you for a reaction (especially if they are intentionally trying to be an asshole) or they are completely oblivious.

    If they're trying to be an asshole they relish the negative reaction. Best not to give it to them. If they're oblivious there's no use reacting, so I don't.

  • Lord_at_War||

    The father of my best friend when I was young taught Spanish Lit at the local college and I never heard him swear. Our 5-6 yr old selves laughed our asses off one day when he said, "Get out of the way, you turd!" while in traffic- then turned around and explained it was short for "turtle"...

  • Jerryskids||

    Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

    President Hillary Clinton.

  • Swiss Servator||

    *report spam*

  • BigT||

    That's beyond obscene!

  • Jerryskids||

    Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

    President Hillary Clinton.

  • Charles Easterly||

    "Nuts!"

    - H&R Squirrels to Jerryskids

  • Swiss Servator||

    *report squirrlez*

  • Lord_at_War||

    squirrlez

    I thought squirrels liked nuts...

    /narrowed my own gaze

  • AlmightyJB||

    Uh huh. The rules have changed as to what you can and cannot say but the punishment is much more severe if you break them.

  • widget||

    i instinctively flip the bird to anyone who fists his car horn at me in Los Angeles traffic. I likewise give a friendly wave for a wake-up thumb-toot. There's some etiquette involved in yelling at strangers here. I could complain until I'm breathless about the third-world immivation and lackluster assimilation, but have to say that this cultural picadillo is picked up very quickly.

    Having spent some time in Karachi and Dhaka I can understand lure the US has on south Asian immigrants The silence! The sweet silence of a metropolitan US traffic jam.

  • Bronson, Missouri||

    I'm cool with profanity, but I can't imagine reading a 272 page book about this. We need more 50 page books - I'd at least consider reading that. Not every topic needs the full treatment.

  • widget||

    Yeah. I can't sing or dance but I can pretty much turn down anyone's computer code 10 to 1, exceptions like the QNX kernel not withstanding. This skill has limited cache in the marketplace though.

  • Jerryskids||

    Keep in mind if you're an English speaker that many of the "vulgar" words are literally vulgar - they were the version of English spoken by the commoners as opposed to the language of the nobility. "Shit" and "crap" mean the same thing but one is more frowned upon in polite company.

    (Insert obligatory reference to story of Bess Truman being told she really should get Harry to try to say "fertilizer" instead of "manure" and her sighing reply: "You have no idea how long it took me to get him to say 'manure'.")

  • UnCivilServant||

    Insert obligatory reference to story of Bess Truman being told she really should get Harry to try to say "fertilizer" instead of "manure" and her sighing reply: "You have no idea how long it took me to get him to say 'manure'."

    Whoever requested that later substitution should be ashamed. While "Manure" can be regarded as roughly synonymous excrement, "fertilizer" is not. There is overlap to be sure, but not all fertilizer comes from excrement. I despise synecdochal euphemisms.

  • Suicidy||

    I regularly refer to the ideas of others as excreable. Often to their face. Many have no idea what that means.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Sometimes that's fun.

    Sometimes it gets frustrating to forget that I've collected a large stock of vocabulary words no one ever uses.

    At least when people say my writing sent them to the dictionary, it's not to complain about the density of archaic and obscure verbiage.

  • R C Dean||

    Many have no idea what that means.

    I didn't.

    Capable of being discharged by spitting.

    Learned a new word today.

  • Jerryskids||

    On a related note, you can often get away with a "pardon my French" if you really do use the foreign phrase instead of the English equivalent.

    But I remember when my sister hosted some foreign exchange Chinese students who didn't speak English very well and one of them casually mentioned that one of the more interesting things about Atlanta was trying to get used to how many niggers there were around. After we got done choking, we had to explain to her that that particular word is perhaps not one she should have been taught as acceptably proper English.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Reminds me of a exchange student who used to come into the store I worked in, he dressed in a full hip-hop style and would insert the word "fool" constantly into his English, so you'd get a conversation like this:

    Him: Hello fool, give me a pack of Marbolro lights, fool.
    Me: *pulls down lights*
    Him: Nah fool, make those 100s, fool
    Me: *sells him the cigarettes
    Him: Thank you, *nods politely*

    People just pick up the language they here.

  • GILMORE™||

    I doubt this book deals with the modern forms of casual profanity, which is to append banal statements with "af" to make them seem more emphatic

  • Christmas Cuck, Jr.||

    On profanity: I saw some member of the Madden video game series talking about spending time with John Madden while working on the game. Said Madden cusses like no one you ever saw in private, but he never slipped even once in public appearances.

    I've heard him call lots of games, and I don't recall him ever slipping then.

  • Crusty Juggler||

  • straffinrun||

    Artie Lange outed Bob Ueker!

  • AlmightyJB||

    I worked in construction when my kids were little. I heard profanity all day long. I was able to refrain at home though.

  • R C Dean||

    I strenuously avoid profanity at work and in most settings. Except as a near-involuntary verbal ejaculation, its a crutch. Much more effective when chewing someone's ass to not use profanity, in my experience. Put a little thought and creativity into it - using profanity requires neither.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Gunny Hartman disagrees.

  • Bender B. Rodriguez||

    Fuck all y'all muthafuckas all up in this muthafucka.

    Fuckin' yo muthas like muthafuckas all up in this muthafucka.

  • Harvard||

    You know who else punctuated with profanity don't you?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fhG5hVEyNXo

  • The Fusionist||

    Andrew Dice Hitler?

  • Hank Phillips||

  • cthulhu||

    David Mamet is one of the masters of profanity. The "fuck" scene in Glengarry Glen Ross is sheer poetry.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Most evolution protects survival. When Johnson and Nixon declared War on Libertarians, hippies, all things enjoyable and so forth, youth streamed into California and the vernacular there was explicitly uncomfortable, intolerable even, to the very people who would turn us in to the Thought Police. (No big loss).

  • اخبار مصر||

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