Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Forbidding "Fuck" and "Shit" to Save Them

My eight-year-old son Davy has been exploring bad words. Fortunately, he thinks the "S-word" is "stupid" and the "N-word" is "nincompoop"! But you should hear him swear like a sailor with "stupid"!

I suppose it's an obvious point that the power of "fuck" and "shit" come from their being forbidden. But people don't seem to draw the implications. I as a fan of obscenity (in appropriate contexts) mourn our increasing laxity about these words -- such as in Harry Frankfurt's bestseller On Bullshit. "Fuck" and "shit" risk becoming "sex" and "crap" -- or "scheisse" and "merde". Is there any word as deliciously shocking in German or French as "fuck" is (or used to be) in English? (I set aside the shock of political or ethnic insult, which is quite different.)

Foes of obscenity should rejoice that you can now hear these words on mainstream television. I, however, treasure obscenity's illicit power. I will be shocked and alarmed when my son discovers these words, as a gift to him.

19 comments:

Anibal said...

Don´t let your child see these spanish words for the equivalent in english "fuck" and "shit"

Fuck= joder

Shit= mierda or me cago en la leche

In relation to "bullshit" in media and TV is something that also happens in Spain. That´s globalization!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I don't know Spanish very well. Do you have an opinion on whether these words are more or less obscene than "fuck" and "shit" in English?

philosoraptor said...

You seem worried that those particular words will lose their potency once they become as comparatively mild as "Hell" and "damn". But perhaps even as we speak, a new generation of "extremely obscene" words are arising to take their places. (I don't have a clue about which words those might be. "Santorum", perhaps?)

Tanasije Gjorgoski said...

I don't get it Eric,

Why do you consider referring to shit or fucking interesting?

Anyway, as for shocking, one always has an option of carrying a piece of feces, and fix the reference ostensively.

Pete Mandik said...

I'm with you on this one, Eric. Imagine stubbing your toe really badly and having no obscenities on hand more shocking than "dang nabbit". How utterly unsatisfying!

Anibal said...

If you are alone or in company of friends and something unussual or bad happen to you, in self-conversation or conversation, these words are recurrent with no political incorrectness associated with them.
But if you are in company of strangers they are very rude.

The Financial Philosopher said...

Four letter words have their uses. As a tool in a toolbox, they have their place. Excessive and improper use, however, will only define (accurately, in my opinion) the user as a fool, especially if the given tool is not needed to accomplish the task at hand...

For example, it's mosquito season where I live. While working in my garage, I would gain immense satisfaction in killing one (or several) of the little blood-sucking creatures with a nearby hammer when I could have easily done the job with my hand -- albeit, with less satisfaction.

Should I walk around in public swinging my hammer around at mosquitos?

I enjoy the blog, Eric. Thanks...

Badda Being said...

Ah, fuck that. I think people should be more creative with their words.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Philosoraptor: The words have historical depth that would be lost with replacements, in my view. "Santorum" won't turn quite the same trick. Besides, I think political/racial words have a very different sort of offensiveness than bodily function words -- a less appealing offensiveness to me.

Tanasije: It's an interesting question. It seems to be common in European langauges for swear words to invoke sex, defecation, or God -- and more recently ethnic slurs. I wonder how cross-cultural this is.

Pete: Hence, I noticed when I was in Germany in the 1980s that some Germans seemed to like to borrow the English "fuck" as more obscene (so they said) than any word in their language, dang-nabbit!

Anibal: That does seem a bit different from "fuck". I spoke to another Spanish speaker who said grandmothers will mutter "joder" under their breath. In English, it would be the rare grandmother who would do the same with "fuck", even with family or entirely alone.

I agree completely, Financial!

And badda: I agree that creative swearing has a special place. "Fuck the Pope with a baseball bat!" is more interesting than "Fuck, fuck, shit!" Of course, in some situations it's a drag to feel obliged to be creative (Billy Joel: "I don't want clever / conversation / I never want to work that hard."). Also, creative swearing can be more potent or offensive than one really wants.

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that certain religious words ('damn!', or 'oh God!', 'Jesus!', etc.) were actually _much worse_ than 'shit', 'fuck', etc. At least this is what my father tells me, based on growing up in Ontario in the '30s and '40s.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hm, interesting! I know that's true for some fundamentalists. Was it also generally true? In principle, I suppose, one could look at what was banned and censored. (How many magazines forbade "damn", how many "fuck"?) I seem to recall many more "damn"'s than "fuck"'s in 19th century Anglophone literature, but rate of occurrence isn't necessarily a very good measure!

Anonymous said...

Is there a particular combination that seems promising on one hand, or overused on the other? "Mother fucker" always seemed a little stronger to me than a simple "fuck".

Anonymous said...

Eric, you have an obligation to stop this discussion NOW, before these words become so familiar they lose any shock value they had .

In complete defiance of which... when Australian TV or radio broadcasts these terms, they get few compaints. But if they include them in online transcripts of shows, they get complaints. Apparently lot's of folks think they are worse written down.

The phenomenon of using dashes in them is interesting (newspapers sometimes write something like this "He allegedly told the constable to 'get f-cked'". I had a jewish education; we were told always to write g-d, not god. Magical thinking, in both cases.

Neil

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting, about Australia. The dash seems a kind of compromise -- invoking the word yet signalling it's forbiddenness.

Thanks for the other comments, too!

Badda Being said...

When I spoke up for creativity as compensation for the diminishing returns associated with today's standard repertoire of profanity, I had in mind the studied insults of Oscar Wilde. But it didn't occur to me just then that Wilde lived in what was certainly a more prudish time than ours. Some things simply could not be said at all, ever. Hence the special utility of his wit. This recalls to me something Derrida said in one of his extemporaneous lectures: "Literature is the right in principle to say anything." Meaning, more or less, that things could be said without being said.

(Here's a Derridean double entendre directed at Searle: "I have read some of his work (more, in any case, than he seems to have read of mine -- my first compliment)." So much better than calling Searle a "fucking ignoramus slum lord.")

So, yeah, I guess there is room for creativity either way, that is, whether "fuck" and "shit" are forbidden or, on the opposite extreme, they lose their shock value.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Good point. But Oscar Wilde is a pretty tough standard of comparison!

Badda Being said...

True. With Wilde as the standard, any creative alternative to "fuck" and "shit" would only have schlock value.

Eddy Nahmias said...

You should check out this article on cursing by Steve Pinker in the latest New Republic: http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20071008&s=pinker100807
It's got some fucking hilarious info in it.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the tip, Eddy!