Weakness in Numbers: How the Increase in Profanity Just Might be a Good Thing
Fair notice to the reader: as one would expect in a discussion of profanity, profanity abounds in this essay. I have attempted to not be excessive in its usage, but if a specific word is needed for the purposes of clarity I will use it. Some potentially offensive terms may be used.
Why do we curse? There are many answers to that question. But it begets another: what does it mean to curse? Humans have employed curse words, expletives for about as long as we have been able to speak, but what we say to curse has changed greatly. I doubt any modern reader would be offended by being called a lily-livered coward today, and even more modern curses such as hell and crap are starting to lose their power as curses. A linguistic shift has is occurring, where supposed decency is flying out the window and the degradation of the English language into a crude cesspool of cursing and improper grammar. Or, at least that’s what writers such as Andrew Cotto would have you believe. In his 2011 New York Times piece ‘Any Profanity-Free Zones Left on the Planet?’, Cotto, a high-school English teacher bemoaned the fact that “The hallways where I teach run rampant with the four horsemen of the verbal apocalypse.” Cotto sees the trend towards the explicit in the younger generation a huge negative. On top of the fact that he seems to disapprove of cursing in general, he bemoans the lack of “safe zones”, or areas where cursing is prohibited and/or absent. “There are apparently no rules. No curse-free zones (except maybe church, and one can only hope that is the case). People curse without consideration.” Cotto sees this increase in profanity as a cultural and social step back.
He’s not alone in this view. The entire idea of profanity is that of words that are off-limits, unspeakable, or made to be kept silent. Profanity is meant to be the set of words spoken only in whispers, passed from person to person until the very rare occasion when they are busted loose for one of a few very specific reasons: to express pain, express anger, or vocalize the terribleness of a situation. In this sense, they’ve always been frowned upon in polite company. I can remember the time I discovered the wonders of cursing in public, or rather I discovered the swift and sharp parental disapproval brought about by it. We refrain from teaching profanity to children, or at least we try to. Why? To protect them, the argument goes. We argue that kids are too young to understand what these ideas mean, and too irresponsible to understand or respect the deep cultural baggage attached to these profane expressions. These words are regarded as “inappropriate” for the younger ears.
There is solid logic behind this argument. Many expressions are profane because they carry history- application of those words for years and years has been with the intent of doing damage. I speak of the infamous b, c, or n words in these contexts, and the words like them. The problem with referencing those words as I just did is that there is a possibility, no matter how small, that the reader in question does not know or understand the words to which I am referencing. The New York Times has frequently run into this issue, with euphemisms causing confusion among the reader base. As The Atlantic’s Eric Levenson put it:
“Supposedly, these[euphemisms] help to balance clarity and appropriateness. But the problem remains that it’s not always clear whether the “offensive term term for female genitalia” refers to “pussy” — which is much more acceptable in modern language see: Pussy Riot — or something far more crude. If an interview subject chose to use a word like “cunt,” that would tell you something very different about them.”
Profanity possesses a wide range of powers. However, the most important quality of these words to be aware of is the power they have to offend. There are curses that carry years of hatred behind them, as well as a want to denigrate, condescend, or lessen our fellow beings. I employ such words as shit, damn, hell, or even f**k with abandon in daily life, but the words to which I euphemistically referenced earlier and similar words- are ones I stay far away from. Publications such as the Times and Wall Street Journal have even more far-reaching censorship policies, bending over backwards with complex euphemism to ensure that any part of the reader base is not alienated. The words I still censor and actively avoid in speech have offensive cultural baggage forged in centuries of degradation and pain behind them. I do not want to say them, I feel no need to say them, and to some degree I am partially disturbed by their entrance into popular vernacular. But, this entrance has a different sort of power- removing the ability of those words to cause pain.
Since entering high school, my cursing-per-capita in normal speech has increased greatly. This change has occurred to the point that the profane words I say have lost their power. They are an instinctual component of my vocabulary and the vocabularies of my friends. In this sense, these words have lost their power to offend or hurt us. They are no longer profane, so much as a simple step above casual vocabulary. This kind of widespread use of cursing has removed some or all of the potential to hurt that these words possess. The words I do use may be profane, but they have lost much of their power to personally offend me. The rampant use of these words has desensitized the populace to their usage, and therefore it takes away the word’s offensive capabilities. It is the very overusage that Cott and those who think like him despise that has the greatest potential to save the language he claims is falling apart.
It’s this kind of common familiarity and change to profanity that is going to eventually be caused by the common increase of swear words. However, it’s important to remember that these words still possess power. The reason I still censor some words in this essay is because they are still are radically inappropriate for me or many other people to say, in any context. Additionally, they may never be appropriate to say in casual scenarios, or may never evolve into any sort of casual phrasing, but pop culture seems to portray a shift in that direction. This shift, however, is and will be a very gradual one. The changes that desensitize us to profane vocabulary are slow and bumpy roads. The changing nature of words is a historical constant, with the only certainties being that there are no linguistic certainties. But it is clear that the changes upon us today bring about an increase to profanity in our daily lives. We have two choices- try to fight linguistic change, or learn to adapt to it. No matter personal beliefs, the appearance of increased profanity has the ability to desensitize and depower profane language’s power to hurt. This change (if we let it) can help reduce the capability of humans to degrade our fellows, and to that I say it’s about damn time.
Cotto, Andrew. “Any Profanity-Free Zones Left on the Planet?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 Jan. 2011. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.
Hayes, Stephanie. “A Strategic Guide to Swearing.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 28 Dec. 2015. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.
Levenson, Eric. “How to Get Curse Words Into America’s Greatest Newspapers.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 01 Apr. 2014. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.