Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Curses — foiled again

Why have so many useful obscenities lost their impact?

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Curse words — 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 lashes out at Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), ultimately referring to her as a "mewling quim." If you recoiled at that moment, then you should be commended for your solid working knowledge of outdated British profanity.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 — 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.

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.

"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. 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 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."

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 some cases, such shifts have taken place over centuries. But today, modern media seem 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 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."

Even some of our most storied and longest-lasting profanities have proven susceptible to a gradual weakening in the face of changing social norms and technology-aided taboo-sapping overuse. "Damn, hell, s , and f are not what an anthropologist observing us would classify as 'taboo,' " says linguist John McWhorter, author of What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What It Could Be, among other books. "We all say them all the time. Those words are not profane in what our modern culture is -- they are, rather, salty. That's all." As McWhorter notes, even f has not escaped the passage of time with the full force of its offensiveness intact. Sheidlower, who is also editor of The F-Word -- a comprehensive volume that delineates the impressive history of the word f , as well as its many uses and variations that have cropped up throughout the English-speaking world -- is perhaps the world's foremost expert on this topic.

There are, he says, "a number of things going on with f ."

For starters, there's that all-important connection to sex. "We are no longer as outraged by public discussions of sexuality as we were in the past," Sheidlower notes. "So even the sexual uses of the words are not as strong as they used to be, and the non-sexual uses are that much weaker still."

As a result, the word has become less extreme, and less likely to cause a freakout-type response by the average person who hears it.

Still, Sheidlower says we shouldn't expect f to go the way of damn or bastard or quim any time soon. "There is no other word that is broadly used that can replace it," he says, "so its status as the most offensive widely used word is probably secure for some time."

There is one category of taboo utterances that seems to be ascending the offensiveness spectrum.

"What you can see becoming more taboo are racial slurs, but then also anything that kind of sums someone up," says Mohr. "So, people objecting to fat. And especially something I've noticed just in my lifetime is retarded. People and kids on the playground just said it all the time. And now, it's really taboo."

McWhorter refers to these as the "sociologically abusive" words. "Not God, not genitals, but minorities," he says, adding a few others to the list. (You know the ones.) These words and utterances, it seems, are tracing a path that is the opposite of the one currently being traversed by bastard and goddamn and other classics of the cursing genre.

 

-- Slate

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 7, 2013 A2

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