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.

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.


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


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.


HolySh*tHoly Shit (in the philosophical mention sense, not the use sense), by Melissa Mohr, is a book I had intended to write. I’m glad Dr. Mohr beat me to it, however, since her treatment would be difficult to top. Few ideas are so arresting as the forbidden topics, and Mohr shows us that swearing occupies a compartment of the brain separate from regular speech, and it may even have therapeutic qualities. A Brief History of Swearing, to use the less offensive subtitle, is not an easy book to read in public. Since most of my reading time is spent in densely packed transit vehicles or waiting areas, I always wonder who might be reading over my shoulder. As a short guy that’s always an issue. Nevertheless, Mohr’s book is fun and informative, and I suspect I will read it again for all the information packed into it.

You see, Mohr uses both words of the title in a literal sense. Beginning with the Romans, but then stepping back to the Bible, clearly swearing has religious origins. While the Bible doesn’t prohibit coarse language in any direct sense, it does believe in oaths. Swearing oaths was serious business, and that seriousness led directly to the concept of swearing. Combine that with the idea of cursing (which the ancients also believed effective—ask Saint Peter) and you get the spectrum covered by the concept of “bad words.” (At least up until modern times.) Although I’ve studied religion my whole life, I was surprised how much I had to learn about the more earthy aspects of spoken sacred language.

As Mohr amply demonstrates, what counts as swearing changes with time. Giving the case of the Lindisfarne Gospels, she illustrates how a glossing priest causally dropped the equivalent of a medieval f-bomb right there on the pages of the holy Gospel. It wasn’t considered swearing at that historical moment in time (and besides, a fair amount of it goes on in the Bible). How far we’ve come. I recall one of my Nashotah House students telling me how he had to take a rather freely expressive classmate aside and tell him he was pretty sure that the f-word was an inappropriate adjective to use when referring to the Trinity. But now I see the wisdom of the ages at play. People use their most powerful words for what moves them most deeply. I doubt Mohr had quite that in mind, but if you read her delightful study you can find out what I may be full of after all.

Meaningless Words


I’m glad to be back in New York City. It’s a funny place. A walk down the street can be an education. When I saw this shirt the other day, I had a thought—what happens when words lose their meaning? I’ve been fascinated by the concept of “bad words” since I was a kid. Although I never uttered them, I wondered why they were considered bad. That thought gets stretched out a big longer in this instance, to wondering whether overuse destroys the power of the swear. Although most religions claim taboo words are made that way by god(s), some psychologists have suggested that the function of swearing lies precisely in its ability to shock. If so, what happens when the shock wears off? We may need to come up with new words for copulation to take the place of the f-bomb. And it’s not just naughty words that are at risk.

I saw a report a while back that made reference to “Libertarian fundamentalist Jimmy Wales.” Wales is at least the co-, if not sole, founder of Wikipedia. The libertarian label didn’t surprise me, but the fundamentalist part did. Wales is no conservative religious believer. Of all people fundamentalists are the least likely to support a wiki concept where the final version is never nailed down. It would be like reading a Bible where the words keep floating around the pages, shifting combinations, changing meanings. Of course, the concept of words even having meanings is a matter of debate. A colleague of mine used to remind me, “words don’t have meanings, they have usages.” He was technically correct. Even the f-bomb, when uttered in other languages, as sophomorically portrayed in many a movie, has an entirely different usage.

Dictionaries are filled with archaic words. I don’t recall the last time I saw eftsoons in print, or iwis, or maugre. Have they lost their meanings, or just their usages? In any case they live on in written language history. Overuse of a word leads to calls for restraint among literary types, as when the word “awesome” got out of control a few years back. The case for the f-word is somewhat different. When I walk through the streets of the city it is obvious that it is one word that is in no danger of dying out. The gerund, or more properly, adjectival form ending in -ing, is freely interspersed in blasé sentences with complete abandon. For some people it appears to fill the mental pause generally reserved for “uh” or “um.” When it ceases to shock us, it will become just another Howard Stern of the lexical world. And some tee-shirts, I expect, will be available quite cheaply then.

I Swear it’s True

Spoon-fed the belief from youngest years that certain words are categorically bad, I find myself as an adult who daily plays with words wondering how this curious idea began. The taboo. The “badness” of select words can have nothing to do with the combination of sounds; one language’s swear word is another language’s polite invitation to dinner. It is the context of those sounds that constitute a swear, a cuss, a curse. Forbidden words. The sanctions against such words generally come from religious specialists who know the hidden power of human utterances. Even magic words trace their ancestry back to religious elocutions. In a report sure to be condemned by many religious groups, the journal NeuroReport has announced this week, according to the Los Angeles Times, that cussing makes you feel better.

In a controlled experiment involving ice water (shudder), participants who swore in response to the pain were found to have higher tolerance to discomfort compared to those who suffered in saintly silence. Those writing the report theorize that flight-or-fight response may be triggered by angry expostulation, giving cussing a survival advantage when used judiciously. I had previously read reports that suggested swear words, different for each language, were societally determined and were intended to freeze action (without ice water) in a similar way to a lion’s roar. Indeed, apart from those who habitually cuss, thus cheapening the effect, an inappropriate word is often enough to get the attention of a room full of people (not that I would know).

No matter what their psychological origins, taboo words exist in every culture. Whether they are intended to hurt or help is a matter of theoretical perspective. There is no question that these words possess the power to give pause. I am reminded of a former student who had gone on a missionary trip to a part of the world where Indo-European languages were not the norm. Introduced to a young Christian woman who had a name that sounded to English-speaking ears like his host (a bishop) was suggesting he commit an immoral act with himself, said student turned red with indignation. Months later, safely back in North America, he remained scandalized by the experience. In their context those sounds meant nothing inappropriate – so swearing is in the ears of the beholder. Before you decide to use this curative, however, be aware that the study reveals the best results in pain control apply to those who generally do not swear. Many of those I have worked with through the years would perhaps find a non-swear word far more helpful in stopping pain than their everyday vociferations.