Shift happens

Swerve Magazine's Meghan Jessiman recently asked me some great questions about swearing for a story [link]. She couldn't print most of our exchange, of course, so I've asked her permission to share our Q&A in a post. (To avoid offence, I've bleeped all swear words, no matter how mild.)

MJ: Do you have any knowledge of why swear words originated in the first place?

DF: Canadian Steven Pinker and other psycholinguists—people who study how language works in the brain—report that hearing or saying taboo words automatically activates areas in the right side of our brain that are associated with negative emotions. For instance, words like "excrement," "penis," "incest," "damnation" and "God" apparently trigger feelings of disgust, shock or intimidation. Speakers who want to focus on the literal meanings of these words, while downplaying their negative associations, can resort to euphemisms like "number two," "johnson," "uncovered nakedness," "tarnation" and "heaven," respectively. On the other hand, speakers may wish to downplay the literal meanings of words and exploit their negative emotion. This is where swear words come in: "sh*t," "c*ck," "motherf**ker," "g*dd*mn," etc. They are useful for vocalizing our negative emotions ("g*dd*mn flood!"), or else for getting others to experience negativity ("G*d d*mn you all to h*ll!").

MJ: What makes a word "bad" in the first place?

DF: Words are uniquely human creations—original combinations of meaning and sound. So on the one hand, a word can be bad because it has a taboo sense or a negative connotation, as just mentioned. On the other hand, certain types of sounds help to make a word sound bad too. Notably, sounds that we phonologists call "grave" are hugely overrepresented in vulgar words, at least in English. Grave sounds are those that are articulated with the lips ("p," "b," "f," "v," "m") or with the back of the tongue ("c/k," "g," "ng") or with both ("qu/kw," "gu/gw," "w/wh," "oo"). Vulgar words with these sounds include taboo body parts—"b**b," "p*bes," "p**nt*ng," "m*ff," "pr*ck," "p*cker," "c*ck," etc.—and functions—"p**p," "cr*p," "qu**f/qu*ff," "p*ke," "scr*w," "f**k," "b*ng," "b*gger," "c*m," "fr*g," "w*nk," "sm*g," etc.—as well as slurs of all kinds—"sp**k," "g**k," "k*ke," "cr*cker," "sk*nk," "n*g*boo," "f*p," "mcf*g," "w*tb*ck," "sp*c," "w*p," "m*ck," "w*g," "p*l*ck," "gu*do," "can*ck," "fr*g," "p*ki," "m**krob," "w*gga," "p*g," "c*p," "p*nk," "sc*mbag," "w*cko," "j*goff," etc.

Of course, there are vulgar words without grave sounds ("*ss," "sl*t," "t*rd," etc.), and there are also non-vulgar words with grave sounds ("puck," "coop," etc). But the grave sounds in the latter may still activate vulgar meanings and emotions in the brain, due to a subconscious effect called "priming."

MJ: How does a word become a "bad word." Originally a faggot was a bundle of sticks and then one day it's a derogatory name for a homosexual. What happens for society to accept the new meaning and run with it?

DF: Words don't have fixed meanings. Their uses vary across people and contexts, so over time their meanings expand or contract or shift, for better or worse. As I tell my students, shift happens. So it doesn't matter all that much where a word comes from—those who ran with "f*ggot" in the US a century ago probably didn't give its actual etymology much thought. I've read that it meant an annoying person the century before. What matters is that this word got paired with taboo meanings (like sodomy) and associated negative emotions (like contempt). Its grave sounds probably helped to make it a good bad word, too.

MJ: On the reverse side, do you have any insights into the whys and hows a word can go from being a curse to transitioning into mainstream culture. One example I'm thinking of is b*tch. I was reading a fitness magazine the other day and there it was in black and white, I have to say I was surprised, especially since they were attempting to use it in a casual positive context.

DF: I listen to hip hop music with a lot of swears, but I was taken off guard last year, too, when I heard Wiz Khalifa rap, "I'm the sh*t, literally." Of course, that's exactly why he wrote the lyric—to startle his listeners into realizing that in hip hop slang, at least, the swear word "sh*t" has expanded not only in connotation but also in denotation—its literal sense. Anyhow, the word "b*tch" is now common enough on North American TV and on radio (as in Meredith Brooks's hit song), but because it's generally considered a sexist term, it's still quite a feat to use it positively, especially in writing. I think it's a bit easier to make a swear word sound mild in speech, with the right intonation, body language, etc. But we humans do have a knack for embracing the negative and somehow finding it positive, as in Wiz Khalifa's "sh*t" or, earlier, in Michael Jackson's "Bad." An oft-cited non-pop culture example is "awe," which originally meant fear or dread, but now means reverence or admiration. The original negative feeling of "awe" is behind "awful" and religious swear words like "M*ther of G*d!" or "Chr*st!"

MJ: The boundaries of what can and cannot be said in print, on TV and on the radio are being pushed further and further with the prevalence of cable networks that aren't regulated the same and society's shifting acceptance of "bad words." Are there swear words that you believe will always be known as the bad ones? Why or why not?

DF: Even mainstream broadcast media which are regulated by, say the FCC in the States, are becoming harder to control, partly because some swear words can be associated with positive emotions, in which case they're not really swear words, which by definition trigger negative emotions. A perfect example occurred in Boston earlier this year. At the first baseball game after the marathon bombing, the Red Sox's star-hitter David Ortiz thanked the mayor, the governor and the police, and then added, "This is our f**king city." The crowd cheered wildly, of course. Even the head of the FCC tweeted after the game that what Ortiz said was just fine, because it was spoken from the heart, and he appreciated the emotions. That is, the swear word evoked negative emotions of indignation, hurt and anger, but also positive emotions of patriotism, solidarity and justice. In practice, this means that regulators like the FCC have the impossible task of judging speaker's "hearts" in accepting or rejecting swear words on TV!

Turning to your other questions, "f**k" is one of the worst swear words, but it's relatively safe to use with a large audience, as Ortiz did, because it doesn't disparage particular groups. By contrast, the very worst swear words, namely "c*nt" and the N-word, are sexist and racist, respectively. So Ortiz couldn't have gotten away with, "This is our city, c*nts!" or, "This is our city, n***ers!" But as we discussed, the milder swear word "b*tch" is gaining wider acceptance in spite of being sexist, so perhaps Ortiz could've gotten away with, "This is our city, b*tches!"

MJ: Why can certain words (I'm thinking of the N one and also certain homosexual classifications) transition to a place where it is alright for certain sub-sects of the population to use it, while others can't? Does it mean something different to those who are "allowed" and those who aren't, or is it a matter of taking back what was once a derogatory term and owning it?

DF: Both, I think. As just mentioned, Ortiz's swearing created a feeling of group solidarity in Boston. The city was united by negative emotions ("f**king terrorists"), which it turned into positive emotions ("This is our f**king city"). Similarly, many Blacks have turned the negative emotions associated with the N-word (contempt, hate) into positive emotions of group solidarity. The N-word also serves as in-group slang in this case. So Ortiz could maybe have pulled off exclaiming, "This is our city, n***as!" (note the Black pronunciation of "n***ers") to an all-Black audience, because he is Black. In contrast, consider Eminem. He is a well-respected member of the Hip Hop Nation. His adopted music genre is Black, most of his friends and peers are Black, he lives in mostly Black Detroit, he has a Black accent, and he uses Black vernacular grammar and vocabulary. But he is not Black, so he never uses the N-word, though he hears it daily and though he certainly doesn't associate it with negative feelings like contempt for Blacks.

Another example which is recent and Canadian is "sl*t." The Sl*tWalk protests that started in Toronto included many women who claimed to "reclaim" or "own" this swear word and be able to use it as a term of solidarity and freedom. Men aren't able to use the term in this way, of course.

MJ: Any final thoughts or insights on "bad words" in our culture and the transition they are experiencing.

DF: I'm not convinced that "bad" words are experiencing any significant transition. Swear words, and words in general, have been and will always be affected by meaning changes like those discussed above. Taboos and negative emotions are constant, and so is the need to vocalize or convey them, so there will always be swearing, but never too much, precisely because it's associated with taboos and negative emotions. Studies that claim that swearing is becoming more prevalent are typically based on self-reporting, which is notoriously unreliable when it comes to taboo language. The Wall Street Journal's language columnist Ben Zimmer once wrote, "I'd wager that just about every generation in modern American history has thought that profanity was on the rise."

As for "final thoughts or insights on "bad words" in our culture," there are a couple of surprising facts about swearing that might be of interest to some of your readers. First, swearing involves a lot of skill, including social skills. When someone you're talking with swears, it become safer to swear yourself, if that's something you do, and if you share some kind of social circle. But even then, it takes a lot of skill to know when and where to use which swear word, in any given sentence or context. This specialized knowledge probably exists even in the minds of those who don't swear. On the other hand, it is difficult to master outside your native language or culture, as some new immigrants can attest.

Second, swearing involves a lot of poetics, believe it or not. The top poetic device is repetition, and so people enjoy swears with repeated consonants (consonance)—"d*ckw*d," "s*ck *ss," "c*cks*cker," "t*tty-tw*t," "p*ss up a rope," etc.—particularly at the beginnings of words (alliteration): "b*tchbag," "fat f**k," "f**kface," "wh*rehead," "p*nispuffer," "crazy c*nt," "dumbd*ck," "don't give a d*mn," "slime-s*cking sk*nk," etc. Recall, too, Captain Haddock's pseudo-swear, "Ten thousand thundering typhoons!"

People also like swears with repeated vowels (assonance), like "*sshat," "whack*ss," "dipsh*t," "sh*znit," "lizard sh*t," "p*ckerhead," "tw*tw*ffle," "c*ck gobbler," "bumblef*ck," "f**knut," "dumbf**k," "shut the f**k up," etc. Assonance can combine with consonance/alliteration—"thunderc*nt," "d*cktickler," "sh*t in a dish," "Chr*st on a bike," "cr*p on a cracker," etc.—to the point of rhyming—"f*gbag," "f**kers**ker," "f*ck a duck," etc.

And we like repeated emphasis patterns (meter) in our swears, too. For example, a trochaic meter combines with assonance in "motherf**ker," with assonance and consonance in "unclef**ker," and with alliteration in "jumping J*sus" or "h*nkey-h*mping h*mo." A dactylic meter combines with alliteration in the pseudo-swears "suffering succotash," "jumping Jehosophat," and "billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles!"

Finally, swearing shows poetic license, too, in the form of unusual grammar—"What the f**k?," "for f**k's sake" (note the alliteration and consonance), "I don't give a flying f**k" (note the alliteration), etc.—and creative word formations—"cr*ptastic" (note the assonance and consonance), "fan-f**king-tastic" (note the alliteration, assonance, consonance, and trochaic meter), etc.

[September 6, 2013]