Profanity

seven dirty words

Profanity is language that is strongly impolite or offensive in many situations. It can show a desecration or debasement of someone or something, or show strong or intense emotion. Profanity can take the form of words, expressions, gestures (such as flipping the middle finger), or other social behaviors that are construed or interpreted as insulting, rude, vulgar, obscene, obnoxious, foul, desecrating, or other forms. The original meaning of the adjective ‘profane’ referred to items not belonging to the church, e.g., ‘The fort is the oldest profane building in the town, but the local monastery is older, and is the oldest building.’

The meaning has changed over time. Analyses of recorded conversations reveal that roughly 80–90 spoken words each day – 0.5% to 0.7% of all words – are swear words, with usage varying from between 0% to 3.4%. The term ‘profane’ originates from classical Latin ‘profanus,’ literally ‘before (outside) the temple.’ It carried the meaning of either ‘desecrating what is holy’ or ‘with a secular purpose’ as early as the 1450s. Profanity represented secular indifference to religion or religious figures, while blasphemy was a more offensive attack on religion and religious figures, considered sinful, and a direct violation of The Ten Commandments.

Profanities in the original meaning of blasphemous profanity are part of the ancient tradition of the comic cults, which laughed and scoffed at the deity or deities. An example from ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel’ (a series of five comedic novels written in 16th century France) is ‘Christ, look ye, its Mere de … merde … shit, Mother of God.’

Swearing and cursing are modes of speech existing in all human languages. They perform certain social and psychological functions, and utilize particular linguistic and neurological mechanisms; all these are avenues of research. Functionally similar behavior can be observed in chimpanzees, and may contribute to our understanding, notes ‘New York Times’ science writer Natalie Angier. She also notes that swearing is a widespread but perhaps under-appreciated anger management technique; that ‘men generally curse more than women, unless said women are in a sorority, and that university provosts swear more than librarians or the staff members of the university day care center’; and that linguistic research has shown that the physiological reactions of individuals who are proud of their education are similar between exposure to obscene words and exposure to bad grammar.

Profane language is by no means a recent phenomenon. The Bible sometimes uses strong language, such as mention of men who ‘eat their own dung, and drink their own piss’ in Kings. Shakespeare is replete with vulgarisms, though many are no longer readily recognized. Even the oldest traces of human writing include swear words. Keele University researchers Stephens, Atkins, and Kingston found that swearing relieves the effects of physical pain. Stephens said ‘I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear.’ However, the overuse of swear words tends to diminish this effect. The team earned themselves the Ig Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 for the research. In English, swears and curse words tend to be more often Germanic than Latin in terms of etymology. ‘Shit’ has a Germanic lineage, as does ‘fuck.’ The more technical alternatives are Latin in origin, such as ‘defecate’ or ‘fornicate.’

In the United Kingdom, swearing in the workplace can be an act of gross misconduct under certain circumstances. In particular, this is the case when swearing accompanies insubordination against a superior or humiliation of a subordinate employee. However, in other cases it may not be grounds for instant dismissal. ‘[A]lthough it may sound strange, the appropriateness [of] swearing […] is influenced largely by the industry you are in and the individuals you work with.’ Swearing is, in general, more problematic in asymmetric situations, such as in the presence of senior management or clients, however, a ‘holier than thou’ attitude towards clients may also be problematic.

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