A Linguistic Analysis Of Profanity
Here is a paper I wrote for my Linguistics class last semester:
Most of us would feel comfortable commenting on a pair of our friends pants if we liked them; we would find it completely inoffensive to say “I really like your pants.” However, according to Allen Walker Read (2004), it was highly offensive to say ’trousers’ or even ‘pants’ in the 1800’s. Thus, when referring to pants, it was necessary to say inexpressibles. While this may seem rather bizarre, is it any more bizarre than our distain for the word cock, and other euphemisms for sexual organs? Dr. McWhorter (2005) says that the thinking that profanity exists is a “matter of superstition.” Is he right? The goal of this paper is to investigate the meaning behind profanity from both a semantic and sociolinguistic standpoint.
The Phrasal and Lexical Semantics of Profane Words
Profane words not only have their literal meaning (for example, the word “cock” carries the literal meaning of: a male rooster), but also many other semantic properties. All profane words, when used as a symbol for obscenity, only implicitly carry with them their literal meaning. For example, if I call someone an asshole, I am not literally saying he is a rectum; on the contrary, I am saying that he is a man of unsavory character (or something along these lines).
While each of these words has it’s literal semantic property(s), the property that is emphasized is one that is either used in a derogatory manner, or used to express anger. However, one must not forget that while their explicit semantic property is emphasized, their literal semantic property is still latently present. The evidence for this is when people make sarcastic comments regarding a profane word. For example, if I called someone an asshole, someone else might come back with the sarcastic comment “I didn’t know [insert name] is a rectum.” Both properties are present, but the “profane” property is emphasized.
While much of the profane language we use consists of words, there is a larger set that consists of profane phrases. A few examples include: son of a bitch, fuck you, fuck off, go fuck yourself , go to hell, for the love of Christ, etc. Like with the lexical semantics of profanity, each of these phrases has their literal meaning, and each has it’s intended meaning. Furthermore, these phrases also act like idioms. Profane phrases violate the Principle Of Compositionality, which says: “…[the] meaning of a phrase of a sentence depends both on the meaning of its words and how those words are combined structurally” (Fromkin, Rodman, Hyams, 2003, p.188). It should be intuitively obvious that, for the most part, profane phrases are idiomatic.
We know idioms such as, screwed the pooch, don’t literally mean that someone had sexual intercourse with a dog; rather, it means that one is taking advantage of ones employer. If we compare the phrase son of a bitch to screwed the pooch, we see that both violate the Principle Of Compositionality; one cannot derive their meaning from either the meaning of the words involved, or how they are syntactically organized.
Many profane words are also euphemisms for body parts. Cunt, is obviously a euphemism for a vagina. In fact, many of the most profane words in a language are euphemisms for either sexual intercourse, sexual organs, or body functions: cock, prick, dick, fuck, pussy, shit, piss, etc (Fromkin, Rodman, Hyams, 2003, p.478). What is interesting isn’t so much that profane words are euphemisms for sexual organs, sexual acts, or body parts, but that these words are in turn euphemized. This will be analyzed further in the sociolinguistic part of the paper.
A Sociolinguistic Analysis Of Profanity
All natural languages share common properties: linguistic universals. When we examine a language, one will always find names; names are a linguistic universal. Similarly, profane words, and profane phrases are also a linguistic universal. Every known language has a set of words and phrases that the speakers of the said language have dubbed ‘profane,’ or ‘taboo’ (Fromkin, Rodman, Hyams, 2003, p.476). The question naturally arises: why is this the case? What is it about profane language that people find so seductive? Earlier in this paper a semantic analysis was given of profane language. While profane language is interesting from a semantic standpoint, it is even more interesting from a sociolinguistic standpoint.
Before we analyze profanity from a linguistic stand point, let us look at what comedians and entertainers have said about profanity. Lewis Black (2006) said in his comedy sketch Red, White, & Screwed: “There’s no such thing as bad language, I don’t believe that anymore. They call it debasing of the language. No! We are adults, these are the words we use to express frustration, rage, [and] anger.” Black goes on to say that we use these words to prevent us from using physical force against someone. Mr. Black is both correct, and incorrect. As we know, words are not intrinsically good or bad. Words are merely symbols we use to either express a given idea, or denote a piece of reality. In this respect, Mr. Black is correct. However, Mr. Black is incorrect if he means that there are not words that society has dubbed “bad.” It is an observable fact that many, if not most people, consider some words “bad.” Ergo, in this respect, Mr. Black is demonstrable wrong.
Penn and Teller (2005) talked to Ginny Foster who organized a grassroots campaign to curb the usage of profanity. As Penn and Teller followed her around, one notices that she replaced a profane word or phrase with a euphemism for the said word or phrase. Instead of using the phrase “shut the fuck up” she would say “shut the front door.” Furthermore, instead of saying “for Christ sake” she would say “for crying out loud.” We can see that while Miss Foster changed the symbols involved, the same anger is present; it is hard to see what Miss Foster accomplished by doing such.
The function of language is to convey meaning. Words and phrases are merely empty symbols until we attach meaning to them. The German philosopher and mathematician, Gottlob Frege, distinguished the mode of presentation (what he called sinn, German for ‘sense‘), and the object being denoted (bedeutung, German for ‘object’ or ‘meaning’). If two phrases, or words, have the same bedeutung, then Frege argued, their sinn is equivalent (Beaney, 1997, 151-172). Therefore, saying “shut the front door” is equivalent to saying “shut the fuck up.” The only difference between these two phrases is not their object, but their sense. If we can agree that the function of language is to convey meaning, then the idea that expressing a euphemism is more couth than saying the actual word is merely illusory.
Penn and Teller (2005) perform a clever demonstration in which Penn talks in a nice tone to a dog, but the words he uses conveys the meaning that he wants to kill it. Moreover, Penn then yelled “I love you dog!” Inevitably the dog becomes frightened. Penn and Teller finish off the demonstration with a quote that sums up the message in this paper: “So perhaps it is the context in which words are spoken that give them their power or meaning.”
Dr. John McWhorter (2005) explains on Penn and Teller, that the notion that there exist certain sequences of sounds that if heard, will make people very unpleasant is not only ridicules, but also a very primitive notion. Dr. McWhorter reminds us that the assignment of words to their object is arbitrary; there is not a sound, or sequence of sounds that is by its very nature profane.
While Dr. McWhorter is correct, it remains unclear as to what he means by “primitive.” If we take a charitable interpretation of Dr. McWhorter, then we can safely assume that by “primitive” he means outdated ideas that have either been proven false, or otherwise been cast in a dubious light. If we take an example from medical history, we see that no less than 500 years ago, respectable medical doctors believed that demons caused diseases. However, this belief has of course, been disproved. Therefore, saying that demons case diseases, in this context, is a very primitive notion. Hence, it is doubtful that Dr. McWhorter used the word to defame a specific time period, and not merely the demonstrably false ideas. However, it is true that Dr. McWhorter used the term in a pejorative sense; he used it to defame ideas which are false, but yet still persist.
In closing, the semantics of English profanity have been flushed out to some degree, as well as the sociolinguistic aspect of profanity. At the beginning of this paper, Dr. McWhorter said that profanity is a matter of superstition. Dr. McWhorter is both correct and incorrect. There does not exist a set of words that are by their very nature, profane. Moreover, any natural language will change over time. What was profane in the 1800’s is not profane now. Ergo, in this respect, Dr. McWhorter is correct. However, from a sociolinguistic standpoint there are profane words. While words may not intrinsically mean something that is bad or vulgar, they are nevertheless ascribed this meaning by society. It is deemed necessary to once again give the following quote by Penn Jillete (2005): “So perhaps it is the context in which words are spoken that give them their power or meaning.”
Fromkin, Victoria, Robert Rodman, & Nina Hyams. (2003). An Introduction To Language, Seventh Edition. United States: Thomson & Heinle.
Read, Allen Walker. (2004). The Geolinguistics Of Verbal Taboo. ETC: A Review Of General Semantics, December: 444-455.
Jillette, Penn, Raymond Teller. (Star Price). (2005, February 1). Penn & Teller: Bullshit!: Profanity. Las Vegas: Showtime.
Black, Lewis. (2006, June 10). Red, White, & Screwed. Washington, DC: HBO.
Beaney, Michael (1997). The Frege Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
"In the high school halls, in the shopping malls, conform or be cast out" ~ Rush, from Subdivisions