There was a time when the sight of a woman’s bare ankle or someone shouting “By God!” could send some to the fainting couch. But social mores and cuss words, just like language itself, evolve, and what once was offensive isn’t so much so anymore.
Well, to most people.
This comes up after the uproar over a Burger King commercial’s incidental use of the word “damn,” which doesn’t bother most of us here in the newsroom, especially as we’ve heard much worse (and how). As my colleagues on the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial page put it last Thursday in talking about the kerfuffle: “Have you seen what passes for video games today? Or movies? If some dude choking down a burger murmurs the word ‘damn,’ we doubt the damage. Kids are hearing worse than that walking to second-grade lunch.”
Or in their own houses. I still remember my nephew Matt yelling out the s-word one day at our house, and his mom asking him where he’d heard that word. He said, “Daddy,” and my sister-in-law yelled, “Corey!” Good times.
University of Utah linguistics professor Randall Eggert wrote a column in The Washington Post in mid-2015 that just as well could refer to today, noting, “this consternation over mores is misguided. Yes, the four-letter words we once considered the worst of the worst have become more acceptable. But as we’ve relaxed our most puritanical attitudes toward sex and faith—and the taboo terms that stem from them—other prohibited words have risen to replace them.”
Eggert told HowStuffWorks that what’s considered more offensive now are racial and other slurs, while before the early 19th century it would be profanity (religious-based swears, which would include “damn”), and in the Victorian era, obscenity or sexual swears.
No matter what is said, someone will be offended by it. There are words that won’t appear in my newspaper, not necessarily because they’re cuss words, but because they don’t pass the breakfast test—words that might inspire nausea over your morning cornflakes (think barf, vomit, etc.). More serious expletives (generally obscenity) usually get the asterisk or “-word” treatment. But even words like “darn” and “geez” have upset readers. And Lord help you if you take the Lord’s name in vain. (If you want to know more about the articles and op-eds I mention throughout this piece, click on the links, but don’t come crying to me when you find that some of the sites will have the actual “offensive” language in question.)
Society has coarsened a bit over the years, but people today might be shocked, Eggert maintained, at some of the words in wide use in earlier days that we now find offensive, and which I don’t use in the newspaper or on this blog.
Yet as Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker notes, swearing is a fact of life. “When used judiciously,” Pinker wrote in 2007 in The New Republic, “swearing can be hilarious, poignant, and uncannily descriptive. More than any other form of language, it recruits our expressive faculties to the fullest: the combinatorial power of syntax; the evocativeness of metaphor; the pleasure of alliteration, meter, and rhyme; and the emotional charge of our attitudes, both thinkable and unthinkable. It engages the full expanse of the brain: left and right, high and low, ancient and modern.”
Which brings me to the editorial Thursday: “Words are powerful things. Like guns, some should never be taken out of the cabinet. But when you’re walking down a path in a beautiful Arkansas forest, and a bear or wild boar appears out of nowhere, what are you gonna scream? Fiddlesticks? Who’s going to come to the aid of fiddlesticks?”
Not many, as most people wouldn’t recognize “fiddlesticks” as denoting a serious situation … unless a souffle falling is your equivalent of danger. Sure, if the boss is coming to dinner and he loves souffle …
If it’s chocolate souffle … oh, dear …
Science tells us that cussing can actually be good for us by relieving stress and reducing pain. I know that when I badly sliced a finger several months ago, I didn’t respond with “fiddlesticks.” It wouldn’t have made me feel better or stemmed the flow of blood. I’d tell you what I said, but I don’t remember much of it. Blood loss, you know. (Remember kids, don’t carry a cutting board with a very sharp knife perched atop it while also carrying a bag of brioche. At least the French toast at fault was delicious.)
Pinker wrote of the “bizarre number of different ways in which we swear. There is cathartic swearing, as when we slice our thumb along with the bagel. There are imprecations, as when we offer advice to someone who has cut us off in traffic. There are vulgar terms for everyday things and activities, as when Bess Truman was asked to get the president to say fertilizer instead of manure and she replied, ‘You have no idea how long it took me to get him to say manure.’ There are figures of speech that put obscene words to other uses, such as the barnyard epithet for insincerity, the army acronym snafu, and the gynecological-flagellative term for uxorial dominance. And then there are the adjective-like expletives that salt the speech and split the words of soldiers, teenagers, and Irish rock-stars.”
Or twenty-something pop stars. While I don’t think use of the f-word is merited in most music, I can’t deny that Ariana Grande has a magnificent voice (maybe part of my respect for her voice is my love of Broadway, where she started; I don’t have to approve of her choices to like her voice). If I couldn’t bear hearing even the cleaned-up radio versions of her songs, I simply wouldn’t listen. Just as no one in the U.S. should force someone to follow a specific religion, no one is forcing me to lend Ariana an ear.
That’s what people seem to forget. We have a choice as to how we spend our time and money. We don’t have to give cuss words power with our offense (and there is such a thing as reverse psychology; if it’s verboten, kids especially are more inclined toward use).
If you want to give something power, let it be something positive. Maybe chocolate … or something with fur … much positivity can arise from time spent with goofy animals. Who needs cussing?