Cussing isn’t what it used to be. In fact, cussing has fallen on hard times. Words that used to be reserved for moments of anger or insult have migrated into everyday conversation. Are there no forbidden words left? Movies can still earn a PG-13 or an R rating for language. The FCC polices the broadcast airwaves only, ensuring that you won’t hear any of the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” in prime time or on broadcast radio. But switch to a cable channel and watch an independent film on IFC or reruns of The Sopranos, Deadwood, or Nip/Tuck and you will hear all seven words used over and over again. You can also get an earful of profanity from rappers or Howard Stern on satellite radio.
When forbidden words make their way into everyday usage and song lyrics, they lose their power to shock, insult, and repulse. The predominant swearing pattern in vogue is the use of the adjective form of the F-word, as in Chase Utley’s description of the Philadelphia Phillies as “World f-ing Champions.” When a forbidden word becomes a compliment, it is no longer profane.
Once cursing makes its way into everyday speech, it is drained of its ability to hurt and harm. It either takes on a new meaning or falls out of usage. That doesn’t mean that profanity will disappear. Human beings need forbidden words they can use to express anger and insult.
Profanity will always be with us, but the words will change.
Today’s profanity consists of five basic words. We are definitely in a rut and far from the golden age of cursing when Shakespeare wrote the following colorful insults for King Lear . . .
What a brazen faced varlet art thou . . . You whoreson cullionly barbermonger . . . Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood . . . False of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand, hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey . . . From the extremest upward of thy head to the descent and dust beneath thy foot, a most toad spotted traitor.
Maybe cuss words and insults from the past will be a clue to how new words will be formed. The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue published in 1785 had these listings: fusty lugs (sluttish woman), plug tail (male genitals), apple dumplin’ shop and Cupid’s kettle drums (female breasts). A fool was a nincompoop and an expression of surprise was zounds!
By 1743 people were avoiding blasphemy by using the following words for God: golly, gosh, ye gods, by George, and doggone. In an attempt to disguise the word Jesus in cussing they used Jiminy and Jiminy crickets. Shucks, sugar, heck, darn, and Sam Hill were other expletives.
When the American West opened up, the language became wilder. Mark Twain observed that “when it comes to pure ornamental cursing, the American is gifted above the sons of men.” The use of pshaw, drat, durn, dash, gee, jeez, and land’s sake are from this era. Dang and gee whiz came into usage around 1914.
Early TV westerns captured Old West cussing with insults like yeller, sidewinder, and polecat, along with Gabby Hayes throwing his hat on the ground and yelling, “Dagnabbit Roy.” Characters like Matt Dillon, Wyatt Earp, and the Maverick brothers didn’t curse, but sidekicks often spewed insults like “that sorry, rotten, no good, low-down, good-for-nothin’ skunk.”
So far the first sign of the cursing renaissance is a text abbreviation (OMG), a censoring sound (bleeping) and a phonetic spelling (eff). Maybe in the future we will be hurling abbreviations, sounds, and phonics at each other. “OMG! What a bleeping snafu! We are effed!”
She is a former high school English teacher and dedicated grammarian whose column Plain English appears in several Texas newspapers. Grammardog.com LLC, P.O. Box 299, Christoval, TX 76935, www.grammardog.com, 325-896-2479.