The Good Word

No Offense

Profanity is changing. For the better.

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that matter, had the faintest idea what was going on—then you should be commended for your solid working knowledge of outdated British profanity.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.

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.”

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, shit, and fuck 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. Anyone who objects would be surprised to go back 50 years and try to use those words as casually as we do now and ever be asked again to parties.”

As McWhorter notes, even fuck—the super-badass, cannot-be-effed-with, undisputed heavyweight champion of all curse words—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 fuck, 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. He has studied the progression of the word with precision and scholarly zeal. There are, he says, “a number of things going on with fuck.”

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. However, it is true that the increasing quantity of non-sexual uses has weakened fuck’s taboo status further. Most uses of fuck today are non-sexual.”

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. “There used to be a shock value in saying fuck in public,” says Allan, “but I think that’s totally gone.”

Still, according to Sheidlower, f-bomb enthusiasts need not fret too much. Even conceding that the word has become increasingly common and more widely acceptable in general contexts, we shouldn’t expect fuck to go the way of damn or bastard or quim anytime 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.” (Adds Mohr: “I think it’s going to be a long, long time before we lose fuck.”)

The bad news for proponents of contemporary profanity is that fuck may be an aberration of sorts when it comes to future staying power. Big categories of bad words seem to be falling by the wayside and becoming less taboo by the day.

“Religion, for many people, is not taken as seriously anymore,” notes Allan. “So it doesn’t matter if they blaspheme and use profane language in its old sense. And I think sex is gradually going the same way. Micturition, and defecation, and so forth have kind of lost their sting. Pissed is widely used. Shit is used for all sorts of stuff—the shit hits the fan, in the shit, holy shit, and so on. Bodily effluvia is becoming much less taboo. So, you know, what’s left?” 

What’s left is the one category of taboo utterances that seems to be swimming upstream, actually 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. “Racist, sexist, fatist terms, those sort of things where you insult the way a person looks, or their ethnic identity, have become far more taboo than they used to be,” Allan says. “People with disabilities generally used to be looked at and laughed at, but that’s not allowed anymore. And it’s becoming more taboo.”

That is really fucking good news.

“Not to sound too Pollyannaish, but I think this is a positive development,” says Mohr, “a sign that culturally we are able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes a little bit more than we were in the past, and, at least notionally and linguistically, respect people of all sorts.”

The shift in taboos away from sacrilege and gross-out topics toward more personal and, well, flat-out mean epithets appears to be a move in the right direction. The increasingly offensive nature of these words—and the visceral, emotional responses they trigger within us when spoken or heard—just might amount to a signifier of social progress. “There’s got to be something that people take seriously” and see as out of bounds these days, says Allan. “And right now, it’s human frailties.”