Profanity: Still an ugly habit


On Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” a few weeks ago, guest Bill Cosby reprimanded the host for the use of profanity during a benefit show. Saying that he grew up in a time when swearing was taboo, Cosby said, “See, now there’s a whole new culture. People curse and they laugh. But for me, when you were cursing, I started crying.” It was a surprising moment, especially for Jon Stewart, who seemed genuinely shocked that Cosby was not joking. Apparently he was too surprised to apologize, even though Cosby went on to say that he had felt uncomfortable during the benefit show, at which he had also performed (without swearing).

Stewart’s attitude reflects more on our culture than on Stewart himself. The use of profanity on television has almost doubled since 2005, and the most offensive words have seen the biggest rises in popularity. The internet, of course, is even more profane. Curse words are not only used by louts anymore, nor are they used only to express anger. If this were the case, there would be few curmudgeons about the issue. The trouble is that profanity has become casual and frequent. While overuse has dulled the immediate impact of profane words, it has also caused the existing vulgarity to invade places previously safe from it—popular culture, retail settings and school classrooms perhaps included.

The milder oaths of the English language have been left behind, at least in the new social media. Few young participants in our popular non-culture would feel themselves sufficiently uncaring if they used the more traditional curse words; the ones which after all could still be found in the Bible. In North America, there are really only three profanities: the curse that originally referred to defecation, the curse that once referred to dogs and now offensively to women, and the curse that refers to a sexual act; each along with its own variants.

The third curse, which I would rather not repeat, and which I need not write for the benefit of anyone’s curiosity, epitomizes the culture of profanity. It performs no unique and useful lexical function—that is, any legitimate meanings intended by its use could be communicated otherwise. Unlike almost every other word, it has no power to uplift the human heart or inspire it to noble thoughts. It is the most common denominator, and it is above no one. Unlike many words of inspiration and virtue, you can be essentially certain, if you ever need to guess, that you will hear this sordid word in the conversations of the violent, the depraved and the dishonourable. It is a hallmark of degeneracy.

This term carries a connotation of violent sexuality, as any historian of the word would agree. As a matter of fact, its history is totally chauvinistic. It has survived throughout the centuries, for the most part, thanks to men; men who did not think much of the dignity of women. There is actually a song, released this year, whose title is a combination of two curse words: the one we are discussing, and the one referring to a woman, the oaths separated only by a pronoun. The meaning of the title is “(Violently) have sex with that (worthless) woman”. This is extreme indecency and hostility toward women, but these words are not above these sorts of messages; they were designed for it.

This is not to say that everyone who uses profanity does so in the worst sense. It is true that curse words are now most often used and interpreted as an expression of emphasis as opposed to viciousness. But the emphasis itself arises from the lingering taboo, the still-offensive vulgarity of the oath. In any case, the fact that an obscenity’s emotional force has been diluted by repeated use is no recommendation of it, let alone of the culture that embraces it. Any messages worth communicating would survive the death of this disgusting word, so long as people can find cleverer ways to express emphasis and emotion, and any messages that would not survive do not deserve to. There is still something to be said for beauty in the world, and obscenities cannot say it.

As it so often does, our society has progressed in some ways and regressed in others. While profanity has in many ways gotten worse, we have collectively chosen to stigmatize racial slurs and divisive language, recognizing that language shapes our world and our views. We gave up those words for the sake of goodwill and unity. Let us give up the rest of our linguistic vices for the sake of beauty, honour and virtue.

Update: A video of the Stewart-Cosby interview can be found here for viewers in the US and here for viewers in Canada.