At least one of us is at work, so I’ll not mention any unmentionables. I can’t vouch for the links.
We at Libretto devoted a portion of our free time last winter to compiling a list of outmoded “soft swears” – for example, nincompoop and knucklehead. The process was solely for our own entertainment, as these are some of the silliest phrases that have ever been (supposedly) wielded in anger, but it got me thinking about profanity in general. So here’s a taste of what I’ve been musing on.
Much has been written about swears, so I won’t rehash the “why are some words bad” conversation – nor am I interested in arguing whether or when it's acceptable to use them. I specifically remember when I discovered that not all words are created equal. The setting: my living room. The game: Madden NFL football. I threw an interception and, in a fit of frustration, let slip a particular anagram of “this.” I was about five years old at the time, and my opponent just happened to be my dad. There was no more football that week.
It’s a weird thing, learning that four letters arranged in this way are somehow worse than when they’re arranged like that. I think it’s also part of the reason why many kids like to invent their own words and languages – or at least in retrospect, I recognize that it influenced why I did. When you come up with the words yourself, you maintain control over any and all connotations. You can also use them with impunity – even when they mean something terrible – because they themselves are not intrinsically bad.
In middle school, a group of my friends and I created a set of nonsense words to correspond to many of the more popular profanities. Would that I could remember them, because I’m sure they’d be amusing to me now. They must have sounded ridiculous to our teacher, too, but she knew well enough what our intention was to ban them from the classroom.
Made-up insults or expletives never last long because so much of the impact of a true swear word lies in the cultural power they are imbued with. And it’s fairly useless to tell someone to blurgh off if "blurgh" has no meaning to them. For proof, look no further than (you knew it was coming) genre fiction.
People who find science fiction silly often react first and foremost to the use of language, and few sci-fi phrases feel more contrived than the dirty ones. As a genre with a readership that skews younger, science fiction writers have good reason to moderate their language in film and literature, and of course on TV. But from “smeg” to “bantha fodder,” artificial epithets run the risk of shattering our suspended disbelief – somehow they’re tougher to stomach than the existence of Jedi or Klingons. This implausibility results from the disparity between the emotion the character is feeling and the meaninglessness of the words they’ve chosen, just like with my invented childhood cusses. For their part, fantasy writers are often able to avoid this potential pitfall due to the fact that the impact of many medieval maledictions has attenuated – "bloody," for example – enabling them to use a word that is both culturally significant and no longer taboo. This high fantasy register comes with its own challenges.
There are some fictional universes that do swearing well. Shatner’s acting offers plenty to laugh at, but there are no insane or inane swear words in the original Star Trek. The Next Generation does them one better by translating the dirty stuff into Klingon – the language of whatever-love-is-not – which is a sound solution if you’re planning to go about developing an entirely new language anyway. Battlestar Galactica created what might be the most iconic sci-fi swear in “frak.” (There was even a fan vote to identify the best on-screen usage.) By so closely mirroring the sound and structure of its real-world referent, it’s not nearly so jarring to the viewer as hearing the alien mob boss blurt out “poodoo!” (I’m looking at you, George Lucas.)
Firefly is known as a darling of nerds like myself for many reasons, but one of its less-sung techniques is the use of Mandarin obscenities – an idea that may have been inspired by Blade Runner’s brilliant multicultural interpretation of Los Angeles. The writers translated some wildly colorful phrases into Mandarin, beating the FCC and creating a sense of in-universe history that “frak” can only hint at. The use of foreign-language expletives preserves the historical power identified as essential to effective obscenities while removing them far enough from our own culture so as not to offend – a win-win from a writing perspective. In fact, foreign profanities are used across genres for this very reason.
What’s more interesting is that people actually do this in their everyday lives, as well. When I was first learning Spanish, I – like every good foreign language student – made sure to devote some time to gaining a healthy foundation in the words they wouldn’t teach us in the classroom. That way, whether or not I learned to hablar español, I would be prepared to dress someone down should the need arise without the risk of losing my video game privileges. In what may have been a related incident, my mild-mannered father (I don’t think I’ve ever heard him swear in my life) revealed he knew those very same phrases. He had learned them from some friends for use on the tennis court: He’s a very competitive player, but like I said, never swears (at least in English).
Even monolingual people know a few phrases in other languages. These tend to consist of “hello,” “goodbye,” “love,” and some form of curse word. As I recently discovered, there are surprisingly many web pages devoted to learning foreign swears. But why are people so fascinated by them? I think it has to do with all of the above: they can’t be laughed off because they are real words with real meanings, they are suitable vessels for our emotion because they have authentic heritages and connotations, and they won’t be caught by the “censors” (the players on the adjacent court, for example) because they are just far enough removed from our own cultural context.
In 2013, a pair of Polish researchers set to proving that this trend is real and demonstrable. They found that bilingual speakers are more comfortable using ethnic slurs in their second language than they are in their first, presumably because they feel more connected to their native tongue. This held true even when the participants were asked to translate phrases that were derogatory toward the foreign culture – i.e., Polish speakers intensified slurs against English speakers when translating the slurs into English, but softened them when translating them from English to Polish. In essence, it’s easier for people to say hurtful things in a foreign language.
What we knew as children holds up: That particular arrangement of four letters isn’t to be uttered not just because it means something bad, but also because it is bad – or at least, it’s become a cultural embodiment of bad. It’s why nonce words simply won’t do when it comes to bearing real emotional weight, and it’s why we're more comfortable waxing profane in another language.
So we’ve come full circle, or at least as far as I’m willing to go. I’m sure there’s more to be said about curses, and about the interaction between words and meaning, but that way lies madness – I mean, semiotics. Besides, I’ve run out of synonyms for execration.