Why Profanity Is Changing—for the Better

Language and how we use it.
July 1 2013 3:33 PM

No Offense

Profanity is changing. For the better.

Cursing.
Early forms of profanity involved sexual braggadocio or words intended to disrespect something sacred. But gradually the universe of offensive utterances expanded to include gross-out words referencing bodily functions and racial epithets.

Photograph by Fuse/Thinkstock Images, photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Curse words, obscenities, and other taboo utterances—much like the individuals who resort to them in fits of rage—tend to not be known for their stability. They change, fluctuate, shape-shift. Sometimes they disappear on us altogether, never to be heard from again. Or almost never.  

During an especially dramatic scene in the 2012 box-office smash The Avengers, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, imprisoned and irascible, lashes out at Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), ultimately referring to her as a “mewling quim.” If you recoiled at that moment—or, for that matter, had the faintest idea what was going on—then you should be commended for your solid working knowledge of outdated British profanity. The insult—which would have drawn audible gasps and possible bouts of fainting in mid-19th-century London theaters had Marvel Comics and the requisite movie projection technology been around at that time—amounts to “whimpering vagina.”

In the 16th and 17th centuries, meanwhile, the word occupy was commonly used to refer to the act of sexual penetration, which, among other things, places the Occupy Wall Street movement in a whole new light.

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The words quim and, of course, occupy still exist, but the former is nearly obsolete and the latter is almost never unseemly. They are, simply put, no longer taboo mainstays, and the list of previously offensive English words that have met with a similar fate is long. (The thoroughly delightful 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defines scores of them, including buck’s face to mean a man married to an unfaithful wife and town to mean “prostitute.”)

While there’s nothing new about words becoming more and less taboo with the passage of time, the pace of that process seems to be accelerating—and, even more interestingly, the categories of words that tend to bother people seem to be changing fairly dramatically. In many instances, what’s super-offensive now is quite different from that which was the height of taboo even as recently as 40 or 50 years ago. And that’s because we’ve changed—both in how we share information, and with respect to what most unsettles us.

“Curse words tend to based on whatever societies find most taboo, and most scary, and most interesting,” says Melissa Mohr, whose book Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing examines how and why people have resorted to profane language, from ancient Roman times to the present. “When they lose power, it’s just those taboos getting weaker, and new ones coming in to replace them.”

Early forms of profanity most often involved sexual braggadocio or words intended to disrespect something perceived as sacred—often with religious implications. But gradually the universe of offensive and obscene utterances expanded to include, among other things, gross-out words referencing bodily functions and racial epithets.

“There are many ways in which words can be considered taboo or offensive,” says Slate contributor and editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary Jesse Sheidlower. And “such words can fall out of use for various reasons. The entire category can change, so that, for example, words insulting one’s parentage, such as bastard or whoreson, are now relatively mild curses because we no longer place a particularly high value on such things.” Sheidlower adds that bastard and damn were so offensive in the 18th century that “they would frequently be printed b--d or d--m.” But sensitivities change, he says. “Now, they are relatively mild oaths for most English speakers.”

Sometimes taboo words simply fade away for fairly random-seeming reasons. “A word is felt to be old-fashioned,” Sheidlower says, “another word takes its place.” In many cases, that progression is due to overuse sapping a word of its previously shocking essence or disassociating it from its initial, offensive connotation. In a June 2012 Dialect Blog post, Ben Trawick-Smith provides a modern-day example. Dick, he suggests, may be experiencing “a banal retirement” at the moment. “In many ways, I think dick has lost its punch,” Trawick-Smith writes. “This can perhaps be attributed to the word further evolving to be a rather innocuous synonym of jerk, as in the complaint ‘Stop acting like a dick!’ ... Such is the comparative mildness of the term when you divorce it from its sexual connotation.”

In some cases, such shifts have taken place over centuries. But today, modern media seems to be more rapidly eroding the taboo quality of many curse words. Technology aids in the creation and spread of new offensive words, of course, but it also helps facilitate overuse, and thus the potential for a more rapid decline in the taboo levels associated with both new and old words that offend. The amount of profanity on TV has increased dramatically in recent years, but even more influential in this regard is the Internet. According to Mohr, the fact that cursing is so common online is changing the traditional profanity lifespan. “It’s not just that people swear on Urban Dictionary or on YouTube,” she says. “They’ll post videos about it, and talk about it. And I think that has the effect of making it less taboo if everybody’s talking about it.”

“The Internet allows people to swear in public more easily than was the case before,” notes Keith Allan, emeritus professor of linguistics at Monash University in Australia and co-author of Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. “Maybe they would’ve had to have been drunk before. But now they can do it in sort of semi-private, because you sit and do it in a room on your own. That might have an effect on reducing taboos.”

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