Something Blue

I’ve worked for two British publishers.  This probably has nothing to do with the fact that I lived in the United Kingdom for over three years, but the two situations have this in common: they’re bloody complicated.  I say that for a reason.  I’ve always wondered why “bloody” is considered swearing in Her Majesty’s realm, but not over here.  Profanities tend to be culturally specific, of course, while some forms (scatological and blasphemous, in particular) are generally universals.  I had always assumed “bloody” had something to do with religion, kind of like the more tame “zounds” is an abbreviated form of “God’s wounds.”  In fact, the folk etymology of bloody suggests just that.  Folk etymologies, I learned as a budding philologist many years ago, aren’t the same as scientific etymologies.  In other words, like folklore, they aren’t entirely accurate.

One of the lessons I learned in Britain was that if you wish to cite a lexicon, it should be the Oxford English Dictionary.  It’s The authority.  So I thought I’d bloody well check it out on this.  There, it turns out, the emphatic use of bloody has to do with breeding, not bleeding.  Back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were rowdy aristocrats, or “bloods,” that gave the phrase it’s referent.  These privileged wealthy classes, as befitting the stereotype, could afford idle drink.  They did not work, so life was a matter of passing the time with aristocratic pursuits, such as imbibing.  This led to a phrase “blood drunk,” which, disappointingly, didn’t refer to Dracula, but meant drunk like a blood.  It was only a short, tipsy walk to “bloody drunk.”

Antoine-Jean Duclos, from Wikimedia Commons

Disengaging the adjective—like the saucer part of the Enterprise pulling away from its iconic Star Trek hull—you get stand-alone “bloody.”  This swear has nothing to do with sacred blood, but rather blue blood.  Which brings us to the realm of sacre-bleu, in which the word “blue” (bleu) features.  But this has nothing to do with the color blue (such as Marian blue, known from mythology of the virgin) but from the fact that bleu rhymes with dieu, and using the name of a deity (although “god” is actually a title, not a name) is swearing.  In fact, it is technically what is meant by blasphemy.  Working for British-based publishers has been its own kind of education.  It’s easy to get lost in etymological labyrinths.  But is that the bloody time?  I’ve got to get to work.

Sinful Thoughts

Nothing is quite so scary as that which is undefined.  I learned that as an Evangelical child.  There’s a verse in the gospel of Mark—I’ll use Mark because it’s the earliest, by consensus—that reads, “Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme:  But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.”  Now, that was heavy stuff for a kid.  There was an unforgivable sin.  Naturally, the mind goes to what exactly blasphemy against the Holy Ghost might be.  I hadn’t learned much about context by the point, but Mark places this statement right after the good people of Capernaum accuse Jesus of casting out a demon by the power of Satan.  In context the unforgivable sin in stating that what comes from God is of the Devil.  By extension, vice versa.  Keep that in mind.

A few chapters later Jesus is describing sin again.  This time he lists: “evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.”  If you read the news these characteristics sound very much like the repeated and continued behavior of 45.  Jesus himself cites this as evil—and here’s where it’s important to remember the unforgivable sin—to claim that such things come from God is blasphemy against the Holy Ghost.  Yet Evangelicals are doing precisely that.  Every time they exonerate Trump and his ground in behavior that for any other human being would be condemned as “sinful,” they are committing the unforgivable sin.  And they’re not even scared.

When I was a child, Evangelicals took the Bible seriously.  It was more important than anything—even railroading anti-abortion judges through to the Supreme Court.  Little known fact: Evangelicals of the 1950s supported abortion.  Since that time they’ve lost their faith.  And their mind.  Sucked into a political activism controlled by forces they don’t understand—if any man have ears to hear, let him hear—they committed the unforgivable sin that kept me awake countless nights with the fires of Hell roaring in my head.  I set aside the gospel of Mark and scratched my head.  How’d we come to this?  A nation, one might say a house, divided against itself.  The kind that Jesus, again speaking of Satan, declared could not stand.  No wonder Evangelicals avoid the Bible these days.  It is a very scary book.

Tell It Straight

Apparently there is a burgeoning interest in swearing. Not necessarily in doing it, but in studying it. Over the past couple of years I’ve easily found a book every twelve months that devotes itself to the topic. After I finished reading the most recent one, my wife pointed me to a story on The Guardian that deals with the same topic. The story by Benjamin Bergen, “Well, I’ll be… There’s a real science to cussing and blaspheming but beware,” springs from his book on the subject, which I’ve not yet read. Interestingly, Bergen points out that there are four main classes of “bad words:” those that misuse religious concepts and names, those dealing with sex, words that denote various bodily effluvia, and finally, slurs. Today the final category, particularly when it comes to prejudicial slurs, is often considered the most offensive. Religious swears aren’t what they used to be.

800px-rembrandt_harmensz-_van_rijn_079

Why concern ourselves with such things? For me, I suspect, it is because of laws. Yes, laws. The religion in which I was raised was all about what you could or couldn’t do. One of those species of forbidden activities was swearing. Problem was, I didn’t know what all the words were. How could I not say them if I didn’t know them? And how could I know them if somebody didn’t say them? This vexed my young mind. I thought perhaps I should keep a written list, but this would be hard to explain if anyone ever found it. To make matters worse, some of the words were not swears sometimes and other times they were. “Hell,” referring to the fiery place, was not swearing unless you instructed someone to go there. Other uses beyond the literal were swearing. An ass was fine if it was an animal, but not if it was on an animal. And if you added one consonant that you couldn’t even hear onto a structure built to hold back water you were in hot water. Who made up these rules? The Bible didn’t say much about it.

In high school I heard there were seven words that you couldn’t say on television. Since we didn’t watch George Carlin I didn’t know what they were, but by this point I had collected more than seven. When I finally did hear his shtick (quite recently, at that) it contained some words I didn’t expect which, while rude, were never considered “swearing” on my canonical list. So it is we find ourselves with no definitive rules about what not to say. Professors are writing books about such things and even after having read some I’m no closer to my definitive list than when I started. It’s all a matter of laws, I suppose. Only the rules keep shifting. Best just to keep my mouth shut.

What Did You Say?

inpraiseofprofanityThis driver and this passenger had interacted before. Unpleasantly. You could feel the tension mount when the passenger watched carefully to see who the driver was as the bus pulled up to Door 1. Although bus routes change drivers somewhat frequently, there is a regular driver to my route and this passenger, like a cat sensing the visit of a nasty relative, wanted to see if it was safe to come out. It was the driver he didn’t like. He got on anyway. An argument started, since he always sits in the front seat, just across from the driver. A profanity worked its way into the conversation. “No blasphemy on my bus!” the driver warned loudly. I couldn’t help but smile. I’ve sent author contracts from respectable academic presses where the author has to sign that nothing libelous, blasphemous, or obscene will be included in her/his book. Blasphemy still sets some people off.

Michael Adams’ In Praise of Profanity isn’t an easy book to read on the bus. The dust jacket can be removed, and that’s a plus, but the guy who sat next to me on last night’s commute took a good, long leisurely look at the page I was on. Bad bus etiquette, but then so is falling asleep leaning on the stranger next to you (which he also did). Speaking of bad things, In Praise of Profanity makes the reasonable case that there are no “bad words.” Bad intentions, to be sure. Bad choice of when to utilize certain vocabulary, certainly. Bad words inherently, no. And the book will take you into some strange places to demonstrate this. The section on bathroom graffiti makes the point nicely.

Adams does discuss, briefly, the religious objections to classical profanity—taking God’s name in vain. Having grown up with all kinds of circumlocutions (more technically, I learned, euphemisms) for interjections one must not say, it was interesting to note that nearly all our pseudo-swears go back to violating this prohibition. Even “Jiminy Cricket” was a not so subtle riff on the name of the carpenter from Nazareth. Gosh, golly gee. All three disguised blasphemies. Being a linguist Adams takes this particular analysis with a healthy dose of fun, but there are many people I know who would be quite offended by this study of the vulgar way vulgar people speak. At the same time, looking at what words like “profanity,” “obscene,” and “vulgar” mean, we might need to head back to the lexicon to learn just what species of blasphemy it is to which my driver objects.

Forbidden Words

800px-Norsemen_Landing_in_Iceland

In keeping with the spirit of freedom, just before July 4 the BBC broke the story of Iceland’s blasphemy laws having been struck down. Although the state Church of Iceland (Lutheran by denomination) supported the move, other churches have been grumbling. It’s an odd notion, that blasphemy should be illegal. Part of the oddity revolves around disagreement of what blasphemy is. Even if taking the name of God in vain is used to define it, several questions remain. Which name of God? Certainly “God” is not a name, but a title. Is taking the title of God in vain blasphemy? What does it mean to take a name in vain? If you don’t mean it? I’ve surely heard many invoking the divine in curses that were most certainly sincere. Were they blaspheming? Does blasphemy really mean failing to believe in God? And, pertinent to Iceland, which god is protected under such laws?

Religious pluralism is the clearest threat to those supporting blasphemy laws. Underlying to very proposition is the idea that there is only one true God and that is the God of Christianity. Judaism might be tacked on there, as might a reluctant Islam, but the notion of blasphemy does not seem to bother the deities of other cultures as much. Honoring and respecting belief in deities is fine and good. In fact, it is the decorous way to behave. Still, privileging one deity as the “true god” protected by state statutes is to bring politics into theology. Since when have elected officials really ever understood what hoi polloi believe? In Iceland the old Norse gods have recently come back into favor. Should they be respected to? Why not as much as the Christian God?

It is perhaps ironic that the Pirate Party put forward the successful bid to strike down the law on blasphemy. According to the BBC, the Pirate Party began in Sweden and has now established itself in 60 countries. Since it’s fight for accountability and transparency in government, it’s sure to have a hard time in the United States where bullies can run for President unashamed. What is clear is that although governments make and enforce laws, the will of the people seldom makes itself heard. We may have won some victories in recent days, but there are many entrenched ideas that benefit those in power and not their underlings. Sounds like the Pirate Party may become the Democratic Party of tomorrow. If it does, however, when it loses sight of the ideals that launched it, we may need a new party to board the ship and ask for the people to be heard. Politely, and without swearing, of course.

Utterly Ineffable

Sitting in an office full of Bibles, I feel well equipped for an apocalypse. At times, however, the irony of editing Bibles is almost overwhelming. Standard publishing contract boilerplate includes the assurance that the work of the author contains nothing “blasphemous.” I once had an author object to this language since just about anything said about religion or the Bible could be considered blasphemous in the right circumstances. In these days when Tea and other parties promote a literalistic reading of Scripture and some of its antiquated perceptions of humanity, I realize that the problem is the strange theological tenet known as “inerrancy.”

IMG_1163

The idea of inerrancy is that the Bible is without error of any kind, itself an errant assumption. Those who hold it do not fully appreciate that we have no original biblical manuscripts at all. The Bibles we read and swear on today are translations of copies of copies of copies in a long regression back to missing originals. Those translated copies have to be typeset and printed, and errors creep in at every stage, as is clear from a glimpse of the manuscript trail as well as many famous misprinted Bibles. Even when the inerrantists are pushed back to the original languages, the problem of not having the autograph remains an unsurmountable barricade to the mind of God. Bibles, like any other books, are subject to human error at each step of the publishing process. On my desk sit contracts where the editor of a Bible swears nothing blasphemous exists in the words. Such contract signers are braver than this tremulous hand.

Once I sent a hastily drafted contributor agreement to a Jewish author with the divine name accidentally misspelled. Within literal minutes of hitting the send button, my phone rang. The contributor was civil but reproving. Did I expect a Jewish man to sign off on a document with the ineffable name misspelled? I apologized but otherwise held my tongue. I had inadvertently blasphemed, perhaps, in my need to get too much done in a day. Now I am editing Bibles. One contributor to a study Bible told me his student evaluations state, “he wrote the effing Bible!” Effing? Ineffable? Inerrant? I’m not sure I have the nerves to handle this kind of pressure. Then there is that box full of leather Bible-binding samples under my desk. Bible-binders sure know their leather. Don’t tell me my thoughts have gone astray yet again.

IMG_1131

Presumption Be Thy Name

I once dashed an email off to a colleague in a hurry. The email concerned, in some way, the Judeo-Christian deity, known in the Hebrew Bible by the tetragrammaton YHWH. Quite unintentionally, my harried fingers tapped out YWHW—an honest, if impious, mistake. My colleague, who happens to be Jewish, immediately pointed out my unintentional blasphemy—one more casualty of the computer age. Naturally, I apologized and life went on. (I try not to spin out the larger implications.) The point is, based on the third (some would say “second”) commandment, Judaism has strongly preserved the taboo on using the divine name at all. God’s name is spelled without vowels to prevent anyone from trying to say it, and when written with the vowels of the word “lord” (adonai) gives us the false form Jehovah. Casual use of the divine name is considered offensive, and some would say it’s swearing.

HebraicRootsBibleWhile on Amazon.com the other day—it is the site to which I go for solace; so many books! So many books!—I came across the Hebraic Roots Bible. Subtitled “A Literal Translation,” it was clear that this was yet another well-intentioned, but ill-fated attempt to make the definitive English translation of the Hebrew Bible. True, literal translation is a chimera. Languages are thought-systems and can only be approximated in other languages. Those who wish to read the Bible literally must become proficient in Hebrew and Greek, with a smattering of Aramaic. In any case, none of that caught my attention. Without a hint of irony, the author of this book was listed as Yahweh. In case you’ve been wondering why some prayers are going unanswered, you may have your answer here—the Almighty has been busy writing a book!

My first reaction was a coy smile. That is kind of a cute selling point. But then I realized there was likely no humor to it. This was probably understood to be read literally: Yahweh wrote this book. I wonder who he got to write the Foreword. My error to my Jewish colleague was, literally, unintentional. This was literally scary. Who would be bold enough to claim that their own interpretation was the word of I Am himself? Why did he wait until 2012 to publish it? Blasphemy comes in a variety of forms. While still at Routledge, one of my Jewish authors insisted that I strike the blasphemy clause (standard for many publishing contracts) from his agreement. “Who can write anything that isn’t considered blasphemy by somebody?” he reasonably asked. The thought comes back to me, looking at the Hebraic Roots Bible. The author’s name, after all, didn’t even make it onto the cover of the book.