Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Profane History Of Swearing

Language Matters

Common Profanities: Leith writes: “Melissa Mohr's title, then, is more than just an attention-grabber: the history of swearing is one of a movement back and forth between the holy and the shit. At different times in the history of the west, the primary taboo has been to do either with God, or with the functions of the human body.”
Photo Credit & Source: The Guardian

An article, by Sam Leith,  in The Guardian, reviews a book on swearing, the use of vernacular and “street language” in everyday conversation. In Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, Melissa Mohr gives us some historical background on how the use of non-sacred language is in many ways a voice of dissent against authoritarianism and conformity

Leith writes:
Swearing doesn't just mean what we now understand by "dirty words". It is entwined, in social and linguistic history, with the other sort of swearing: vows and oaths. Consider for a moment the origins of almost any word we have for bad language – "profanity", "curses", "oaths" and "swearing" itself .
Melissa Mohr's title, then, is more than just an attention-grabber: the history of swearing is one of a movement back and forth between the holy and the shit. At different times in the history of the west, the primary taboo has been to do either with God, or with the functions of the human body. (The latter, though, does subdivide in a meaningful way between the sexual and the excremental. Really, this book should have been called "Holy Fucking Shit".)
Though Mohr is mainly interested in English, she is generous in roping in examples from outside it. A helpful and interesting chapter on ancient Roman filth does much to sketch the background, too. How do we know what was obscene in a dead language? By literary genre, essentially: if it was written on the toilet wall but didn't appear in satire, it was likely to be properly rude. English has a "Big Six": "cunt", "fuck", "cock", "arse", "shit" and "piss" (though Mohr plausibly suggests that "nigger" should now be in there). The Romans had a "Big 10": cunnus (cunt), futuo (fuck),mentula (cock), verpa (erect or circumcised cock), landica (clitoris), culus(arse), pedico (bugger), caco (shit), fello (fellate) and irrumo (er, mouth-rape).
So the Romans, like us, had a primary relationship between the body and the idea of obscenity – though their sexual schema was a little different, with shame attaching, above all, to sexual passivity. Sexual obscenity also, to complicate things, had a sacramental function – as witness the fruity ways of the god Priapus. Some of that shit was holy.
Some people abhor swearing or the use of any vernacular, whether written or spoken; my wife is one of those individuals; as are many women today. Perhaps it has to do with a heightened sense of religious morality; or perhaps it has to do with a fear of words. Profanity in itself is an act of dissent from religious authority. It’s somewhat ironic or amusing that many of the swear words in Quebec among the French-Canadians centre on the Catholic church and its rituals. (Some common examples include osti: host; tabarnac: tabernacle; maudit: damn; brûle en enfer: burn in hell, and it various permutations and combinations.)

Some people think that use of profanities marks the end of civilization; that its continued use reflects loose morals. Historical evidence says otherwise, as swearing has a long uninterrupted period of use. Censorship or self-censorship will never work for the reason that people like and enjoy using profanities. Swearing, in my estimation, has its place in society; and most people, if pressed, would admit they swear or would like to.

Even so, the use of profanities in personal attacks has no place in society and serves no purpose. More so, swearing too often soon loses it appeal. A well-timed use of a profanity can have the appropriate and intended ameliorating effect of releasing negative emotions and thoughts.

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You can read the rest of the article at [Guardian]