“When you’re mad, count four; when you’re very mad, swear!” - Mark Twain

An article at the Philadelphia Inquirer caught my eye due to it’s topic being one of the very few, but a personal favorite, vice of mine—swearing—and it asks the question of why are sex words our worst swearwords? Alas, the article doesn’t really answer the question as the author apparently has ADD and gets distracted by the whole (admittedly fascinating) area of research known as Linguistics. The article talks a bit about how linguists don’t so much discuss why certain words are “bad” as much as how different cultures have linguistic taboos and gives us a link to Mark Liberman’s Language Log, which I’ve added to my feed reader.

Despite not really answering the question the article still manages to provide us with some interesting notes about swearing in other cultures and how swearing is actually good for you:

Overall, the scientific evidence suggests swearing is good for you, says psycholinguist Timothy Jay of Massachusetts College of the Liberal Arts and author of Cursing in America.

We’re the only animal that can curse, he says, which sometimes helps us avoid physical violence. “It allows us to express our emotions symbolically and at a distance.” For example, Jay says, when a woman was weaving in front of him on the road that morning he was able to call her a “dumb ass” instead of getting out of his car and biting her.

To further understand swearing, Jay studied people with Tourette’s syndrome because they sometimes involuntarily blurt out swear words. He found the words tend toward the most unacceptable in their native tongues.

For the rest of us, he said, as a general rule, the most stress-relief mileage comes from the most taboo words in one’s personal culture.

The British have a slightly different swearing vocabulary, favoring bloody, bollocks and another b-word that ends like skulduggery. Last year a copy editor expunged that word from one of my columns. We can’t say it because it means anal sex, which we can say.

Americans, in contrast, rely heavily on our F-word.

In addition to helping Dick Cheney refrain from biting all the Democrats in Congress, it represents the most direct and concise English term for sexual intercourse.

Some commentators have warned that we’re wearing out the poor word with gross overuse, draining it of its original cathartic power. But Jay says we have nothing to worry about. It’s an old word, possibly stemming from German and not an acronym for For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, as urban legend has it. It’s been part of the English language for more than 1,000 years, he said, and it’s still so taboo you can’t say it on TV or in school. Or in our newspaper.

Who knew that the reason I’m so laid back in real life is because I have a healthy stress-relieving habit of uttering offensive words? Mark Twain was a fan of swearing as well. Four of my favorite quotes from him deal with the topic:

    Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.
    – Mark Twain, a Biography

    There ought to be a room in every house to swear in. It’s dangerous to have to repress an emotion like that.
    – Mark Twain, a Biography

    …quadrilateral, astronomical, incandescent son-of-a-bitch.
    – Letter to W. D. Howells, (attacking an enemy)

    My swearing doesn’t mean any more to me than your sermons do to you.
    – comment made to Rev. Joe Twichell, quoted in Mark Twain and Hawaii, by Walter Francis Frear

12 thoughts on ““When you’re mad, count four; when you’re very mad, swear!” - Mark Twain

  1. Interesting article.  I imagine that sex words are our “worst” because Americans just have never gotten over the fact that we have little wee-wees and hoo-hoos.  Or ever use them.

    In person I swear like a sailor but only among people I trust.  On my blog I limit profanity to a “broadcast TV” level because I cannot pick my audience (lot of readers from MrsDoF’s church, would lose them in an instant).  Also, I’ve noticed that for some readers one trades credibility for profanity.

    On other people’s blogs, it’s “as Romans do”.

    It is a mystery to me why some people are so offended by certain words.  C.S. Lewis suggested it is a popular confusion of refinement with virtue.  This is just dumb enough to be likely true.

    I am not sure that humans are the only animals that can curse.  How would we know?  Though it is reasonable to imagine that only humans would be so illogical as to define a class of words you can’t say.

    Tourette’s syndrome is probably the recognizable extreme of a continuum.  Why do some people (me, for instance) feel the need to curse when others primly snug their sphincters and speak softly?

    Fact is, I do think less of people who get their panties in a wad over profanity.  They’re ‘fragile’, like little children.  Not that they aren’t worth communicating with but they are disqualified from being really close friends.

  2. Interesting stuff. I’ve often wondered why certain words are termed as swearing and in particular, cursing. I think it has to do with the line from the bible that says something about not speaking curses. And then there’s that commandment about using the big guy’s name in vain.
    But, I think they are both misquoted and misused. Obviously saying shit when you drop the milk is not speaking a curse. Which would seem to me to be something like wishing ill will on another. Such as hoping their camel is infested with fleas or their wife go barren. Considering the part of the world that the bible comes from, I’d put my money on cursing being something other than an explative.
    Then there’s that commandment. Considering that the idea of not speaking the name at all comes from the same part of the bible as this commandment (old testament) making a rule that suggests you can use the name (and I’m skipping the fact that it’s a title and not really a name)when appropriate and at the same time can’t speak it aloud is just silly. I mean, if you can’t use it in vain, that implies a legitamate use that is not in vain. Really, the only logical way to see the commandment is as a warning about personal vanity. That is, don’t wrap yourself in god for your own personal ego or gain. Dubya probably won’t see it this way though, nor would Jim Baker.
    Near as I can tell, this basicly means there is no religeous grounds for censoring one’s speach. Yet the religeous are the ones that are so adament about it. It’s just another example of how things have been twisted to suit a cultural ruleset whether it jives with anything at all.

  3. I’ve always thought that we swear by the things that we’re most uptight about—so in Canada, the worst French Canadian swear words traditionally have to do with the Church and the worst English swear words have to do with sexuality. (Being nearly bilingual, my dear mother can swear fluently in either language.)

    I’m inclined to swear comfortably around close friends and family but not at all in front of strangers or co-workers. My feeling is that we’re generally not very comfortable with women swearing, so I carefully censor myself depending on the environment.

  4. Bollocks- From the anglo saxon meaning Sphere or Ball… you get the modern meaning.  One of the great words- Because of it’s length and sound you can really put some feeling into it- Pent up until you explode on the ‘B’, with the L’s leading to the wonderfully harsh ‘ck’. Usually used to inticate an error or rubbish. “You are talking bollocks”, “you’ve bollocked that right up”, “my boss gave me a right bollocking for that cock up”

    “Wanker” is another good one- seemingly unknown in the US until the internet chatrooms.  The fact that Mork and Mindy’s shop landlord was Mr Wanker… well.  I really hope his first name was Randy.  At football grounds all over Britain you can hear thousands of people chant in a unison that would make and choirmaster cry the immortal phrase

    The Referee’s a wanker, The Referee’s a wanker.

  5. Shelley: Being nearly bilingual, my dear mother can swear fluently in either language.

    Dad never really learnt to swear in English but still blasphemes beautifully in Dutch. smile
    I still swear but not nearly as much as I used to; it’s lost much of its punch and shock factor somehow.

  6. S-Sadie: Fuck, I can’t even tell anymore when I fucking swear and when I don’t.

    I just worked out these beautiful psychological profiles of the difference between an old bloke saying fuck and a young goddess saying fuck.
    You’re still young enough to have shock value with your words.
    See, when you get my age you become invisible and almost divorced from too much except yourself. It’s often as though I’m watching this bloke move about, think, say and hear stuff that, in the scheme of things, is bullshit.
    Then again, I realise I’m too pisstoned to go on with too much more even if I could work out logical thought processes to explain what I may think in this moment. smile

  7. I gotta say I really do enjoy the British swear words a lot.  It’s too bad so many people want to limit expression to the point where you have to actually watch what you say.

    Which reminds me; hey Les, doesn’t Michigan have a law about swearing.  I think I remember reading a law case about a couple of college kids that got in trouble for swearing.

  8. Why yes, yes it does. As do several of the communities in Michigan. In fact the first really big entry I every wrote for SEB—and the fourth entry I ever wrote to boot—was all about how I’m a criminal thanks to my swearing. It’s still one of my all-time favorite entries.

    That entry is mostly about Canton’s ordinances. I can’t recall if I ever wrote one about Michigan’s laws, but they are on the books including some that are clearly unconstitutional because they outlaw using God or Jesus’ name in vain.

  9. Goddammit, the internet ate my reply… let’s see if I remembered to copy before submitting…

    Being one of those people who (to quote my mother) “swears like a sailor,” and has since I could form my toddler-sized mouth around the words, I’ve read, thought, talked and written about what’s considered “dirty” or “obscene.”  I’ve mentioned before that my dad instilled in me a particular passion for the First Amendment… well, one of the little axioms he taught me was, “If you’re uncomfortable with the word, you’re uncomfortable with the act.”

    It’s interesting to me that considering sexual slang (or more particularly, slang for various body parts or natural functions) to be “profane” or “obscene” seems to be a counterpart to the invention (and wide use) of more socially-acceptable euphemisms for some of those same parts and functions.  An example:

    The medical term “vagina”:
    “Hoo-hoo” – socially acceptable and inoffensive
    “Cunt” – widely held to be offensive and obscene, and as a rule is very effective when used with the intent of insulting a woman (and enraging her)

    In pondering the seeming inability of most rational adults to discuss natural biological functions without resorting to words that resemble baby-talk, it seems to me that it’s due to the pervasiveness of this attitude that everything between your navel and your knees is something secret and shameful.  Hence, a person calling me a “cunt” (or maybe a “prick,” for a man) is cursing me by declaring me to be this shameful and “dirty” bit of human anatomy.  On the other end of the spectrum is the reinforcement of shame in discourse and discussion, and even in popular media.

    Personally, I’m more offended by the cultural pressure to be ashamed of my human nature than I could ever be by someone who thinks to wound me by calling me a vagina or anus by any other name.

    Besides, having chosen the moniker “ObnoxiousBitch” – I can’t imagine what the fuck else people would expect to see and hear from an aging, godless, liberal cunt with a bowel disease and a chip on her shoulder about the trashing of the First Amendment along with a push to sanitize all public expression so that it’s appropriate for a religious 13 year old.

    I learned a long time ago that profanity can be quite a useful tool in getting someone to THINK about what I’m asking them to consider.  If I have to resort to shocking or offending someone into a conversation, that’s fine by me.  There are far too many apathetic simpletons in the world who are (in my opinion) complicit in their own enslavement, who go along to get along while their rights are being trampled. If my offending some of them is what it takes to wake them the fuck up, I’m more than happy to oblige.

    Of the two, I’m far more fond of engaging in blasphemy than obscenities of the sexual variety. There’s SO much more material there, in terms of potential to shock and offend. wink

    (O fucking happy day!)

  10. OB, Jesus h. fucking christ on a stick, it’s so cool when you do a rave; I like reading your stuff – here and thereLOL

    Me and Jim (Jim and I?) went over to the holy city for a look. Went to St Peter’s Square and the pope came down and blessed us.
    When we got home we found it had all been televised and our mates back here in Oz had seen it all on the Tee-V.
    When my nephew asked me what the holy father had said, I just couldn’t lie; I told him the truth.
    B-B-B-Benny (& the jets?) said: You!! Pick up ya fucking beer, grab your cunt of a mate and fuck off.
    If you do the right hand movements it only ‘looked like’ he was blessing us.
    Sorry, it’s a visual thing … you see, he points up at me (coz he’s got duck’s disease) then he points down at my … ah fuck it.  LOL

  11. Thanks John… you’re no slouch yourself grin  It’s a bit of a morale booster to hear that my ramblings are worthy of others’ notice from time to time – especially since writing them functions as a sort of therapy for me.  Before I discovered the internet local bbs systems, my rants were confined to personal journals and the occasional letters to the editor of the paper in “the OC.” (I’ll sum up the political climate there with, “No left turns in Orange County.”).

    Back on-topic…

    azimov:

    Interesting stuff. I’ve often wondered why certain words are termed as swearing and in particular, cursing. I think it has to do with the line from the bible that says something about not speaking curses. And then there’s that commandment about using the big guy’s name in vain.
    But, I think they are both misquoted and misused. Obviously saying shit when you drop the milk is not speaking a curse. Which would seem to me to be something like wishing ill will on another. Such as hoping their camel is infested with fleas or their wife go barren. Considering the part of the world that the bible comes from, I’d put my money on cursing being something other than an explative.

    Good points.  We can divide the words considered to be “cussing” (the West Coast version of what I’d always called “swearing”) into groups:

    Cursing – “Damn you to the bowels of Hell!”
    Swearing – “By Christ, I’ll see you destroyed!”
    Profanity/Blasphemy – “Jesus Christ stapled to a 20-ft. stick!”

    Cussing along those lines is taboo due to being irreverent or impious – there’s a direct involvement of some religious figure/idea or what some people hold sacred.

    Vulgarity – “I’d sure like to tap that ass!”
    Obscenity – “Fuck you, asshole!”

    These qualify for censorship not on religious grounds, but because they’re “indecent” (as defined by society at large, I guess).

    Then there’s that commandment. Considering that the idea of not speaking the name at all comes from the same part of the bible as this commandment (old testament) making a rule that suggests you can use the name (and I’m skipping the fact that it’s a title and not really a name) when appropriate and at the same time can’t speak it aloud is just silly. I mean, if you can’t use it in vain, that implies a legitamate use that is not in vain.

    My take on it after having studied several religions is that calling upon a deity by name in prayer, ritual or supplication would be considered a “legitimate” purpose in most religions. Words, and particularly names, have great power in most religions.

    Narrowing the focus to Christianity, if “God hears all prayers,” that means every time you call upon him (say his name), he gives you his attention. Bothering him for every little thing is asking him to be present for vulgar (common) purposes that don’t really require his intervention. “Oh, God, please let me not pee my pants while sitting in this traffic!”  Or, IMO, thousands of people each day requiring God’s presence to witness their patriotic Pledge (and that of non-believers simply mouthing the words to “get along”) to their country. wink

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