Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Profanity Inflation, Profanity Migration, and the Paradox of Prohibition

As a fan of profane language judiciously employed, I fear that the best profanities of English are cheapening from overuse -- or worse, that our impulses to offend through profane language are beginning to shift away from harmless terms toward more harmful ones.

I am inspired to these thoughts by Rebecca Roache's recent Philosophy Bites podcast on swearing.

Roache distinguishes between objectionable slurs (especially racial slurs) and presumably harmless swear words like "fuck". The latter words, she suggests, should not be forbidden, although she acknowledges that in some contexts it might be inappropriate to use them. Roache also suggests that it's silly to forbid "fuck" while allowing obvious replacements like "f**k" or "the f-word". Roache says, "We should swear more, and we shouldn't use asterisks, and that's fine." (31:20).

I disagree. Overstating somewhat, I disagree because of this:

"Fuck" is a treasure of the English language. Speakers of other languages will sometimes even reach across the linguistic divide to relish its profanity. "Fuck" is a treasure precisely because it is forbidden. Its being forbidden is the source of its profane power and emotional vivacity.

When I was growing up in California in the 1970s, "fuck" was considered the worst of the seven words you can't say on TV. You would never hear it in the media, or indeed -- in my posh little suburb -- from any adults, except maybe, very rarely, from some wild man from somewhere else. I don't think I heard my parents or any of their friends say the word even once, ever. It wasn't until fourth grade that I learned that the word existed. What a powerful word, then, for a child to relish in the quiet of his room, or to suddenly drop on a friend!

"Fuck" is in danger. Its power is subsiding from its increased usage in the public sphere. Much as the overprinting of money devalues it, profanity inflation risks turning "fuck" into another "damn". The hundred-dollar-bill of swear words doesn't buy as much shock as it used to. (Yes, I sound like an old curmudgeon -- but it's true!)

Okay, a qualification: I'm pretty sure what I've just said is true for the suburban California dialect; but I'm also pretty sure "fuck" was never so powerful in some other dialects. Some evidence of its increased usage overall, and its approach toward "damn", is this Google NGram of "fuck", "shit", and "damn" in "lots of books", 1960-2008:

[click to enlarge]

A further risk: As "fuck" loses its sting and emotional vivacity, people who wish to use more vividly offensive language will find themselves forced to other options. The most offensive alternative options currently available in English are racial slurs. But unlike "fuck", racial slurs are plausibly harmful in ordinary use. The cheapening of "fuck" thus risks forcing the migration of profanity to more harmful linguistic locations.

The paradox of prohibition, then: If the woman in the eCard above wishes to preserve the power of her favorite word, she should cheer for it to remain forbidden. She should celebrate, not bemoan, the existence of standards against the use of "fuck" on major networks, the awarding of demerits for its use in school, and its almost complete avoidance by responsible adults in public contexts. Conversely, some preachers might wish to encourage the regular recitation of "fuck" in the preschool curriculum. (Okay, that last remark was tongue in cheek. But still, wouldn't it work?)

Despite the substantial public interest in retaining the forbidden deliciousness of our best swear word, I do think that since the word is in fact (pretty close to) harmless, severe restrictions would be unjust. We must really only condemn it with the forgiving standards we usually apply to etiquette violations, even if this results in the term's not being quite as potent as it otherwise would be.

Finally, let me defend usages like "f**k" and "the f-word". Rather than being silly avoidances because we all know what we're talking about, such decipherable maskings communicate and reinforce the forbiddenness of "fuck". Thus, they help to sustain its power as an obscenity.

[image source]


Rebecca Roache said...

This is great! I hadn't thought about the idea of the risk the increasing acceptability of 'fuck' driving people towards racial slurs. I wonder whether that is really true, though. I suspect that only people who don't care about being viewed as racists would be tempted to substitute 'fuck' for a more offensive racial slur, and that sort of person is presumably becoming more rare as the offensiveness of racial slurs increase. I would be surprised if we ran out of basically harmless swearwords and had to encroach into slur territory: as 'fuck' becomes more acceptable, we can create new, more offensive words. Plus, we still have 'cunt'.

Brian Robinson said...

Great post. You're absolutely right on the power of the f-word deriving from its prohibition.

To add some extra historical context, however, back in the 1700s 'fuck' was more common than 'damn' and traded back and forth with 'shit' for higher frequency. It appears to have picked up the prohibition in 1790 or so, and was largely banished by 1820.

Perhaps if 'fuck' becomes another 'damn', something else will emerge as the new 'fuck'.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the kind and thoughtful comment, Rebecca. I'm sure you're right that committed anti-racists wouldn't move to racial slurs, but maybe some borderline folks would be less averse, if they want to shock.

You raise the interesting question of how words get elevated into swear-word territory. One mechanism might be a general opinion that the word is inherently offensive and thus *should* be forbidden -- thus making it more offensive. (By "inherent" I only mean independently of its status as a swear word; of course nothing in language is inherent in a strong sense of "inherent".) If that were the main mechanism, then in order for non-offensive swear words to rise to replace "fuck", we'd have to hope that general opinion is wrong about their offensiveness. Otherwise, genuinely offensive words might arise.

I'm on the fence about "cunt". Although it's not a slur, I'm inclined to think that it's more problematic than "fuck". To my ear, it more vividly connotes a problematically negative attitude toward the vagina than "fuck" connotes a negative attitude toward sex. (I recognize that both cases are mixed and probably vary by dialect and individual speaker. My guess is that the English are more liberal in their use of "cunt" than are people in the U.S.) Because of that, I'd be disappointed to see it displace "fuck" -- though maybe, if it did displace "fuck", in the process it would lose some of the vividly negative connotation.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Brian: Interesting point! I noticed that in the NGram, too. Pretty high usage of "fuck" until about 1800, then it goes close to zero in printed books until about 1960. I'm not sure what the story is there. Some sources say it was always considered vulgar (perhaps unlike "shit") but there's a difference between vulgar and forbidden.

On a new "fuck" -- yes, maybe! I expressed some thoughts about that in the second paragraph of my reply to Rebecca above.

Pete Mandik said...

Great googly-moogly!! F**king great post, Eric!!

I find myself agreeing with your point in the last paragraph of the post.

Some additional semi-random points:

One kind of value of both profanity and decipherable maskings (and also substitute non-swears like "fudge") Is that they are often a great source of and aid to *comedy*. It's complex how these various phenomena interact to give rise to some really funny stuff. I don't have much of depth to say about it. But do want to give a shout out to the "cheese and rice" types of non-swears that William H. Macy's character deploys in Fargo. And also to the audio equivalent of asterisk-izing used in the partial bleep-outs on South Park, where the initial and terminal consonants of an uttered "fuck" are still clearly audible. And the garbled non-sense the dad in Christmas Story spews forth in place of actual cursing. Those are all highly humorous pieces of our culture; pieces whose value as comedy would be degraded if "fuck" (etc) lost it's superpowers.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, Pete -- I agree with all of that. The comic dimensions are complex, and I too haven't really thought it through, but the forbiddenness of the words is probably important to their effective use in comedy, and Carlin's "Seven Words" routine, though still funny, was probably funnier back when those words were less commonly used in the media.

I also share your taste for slightly unusual or goofy substitution words and phrases. "What in the name of the heck?!" is one I picked up from my daughter and has become a favorite family "curse".

Amod said...

I agree with this, but I'm not sure we can do anything about it. In liberal circles (at least under the age of 40 or even 50) I think it has already happened that "fuck" and "shit" have lost their power to shock - but racial slurs have gained them.

Rebecca Roache said...

Which way 'cunt' travels along the offensiveness scale might depend on how the word is responded to by the majority of feminists, I suppose. It could be claimed as a sort of celebratory term, or derided as sexist and derogatory, in which case it might increase in its offensiveness and come to be seen as more like a slur.

It is interesting that there seem to be some cultures in which swearing just is more ubiquitous, yet still useful. The following story is a fun illustration of that (it came from someone who responded to my request for foreign swearwords from Philos-L - probably the most fun I've ever had on that mailing list):

'Here is a true story that illustrates the relative lack of taboo with respect to swear words in Spain. Some years ago, the king of Spain (then Juan Carlos II) visited the north of Spain and was served white asparagus, one of the local agricultural specialties. When asked how they were, he said, "Cojonudos!" which is an adjectival form of "cojones," which means balls or testicles. In this form, the expression could be translated as "fucking great!" The comment was reported in the press, and the company that grows/distributes the asparagus was so proud of this endorsement that ever since it has put "Cojonudos!" on every box of canned asparagus that it sells in the supermarket.'

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Amod: I do agree that's probably the trend. Exactly how far it's gone, though, I'm not sure -- probably varies a lot.

Rebecca: That sounds right about "cunt". Interesting story about Spain. A German friend once told me (I'm not sure how many other Germans would agree) that part of what he likes about the English "fuck" is that there is no word in German with quite that force. These cases suggest that English swearing could become more like (these portrayals of) Spanish and German swearing, cute and funny and vulgar, but without as much of the frisson of the forbidden -- and I guess the driving thought of this post is that that would be a shame. Another interesting comparison case is inner city American English, where I suspect "fuck" plays a different role from either "fuck" in 1970s suburban California or "cojones" or "Scheisse" in Spanish or German -- maybe there's more of a flavor of subcultural rejection of mainstream establishment norms, or something like that.

Unknown said...

Great read, and good points!

(And to your exchange with Pete, my family has found a special place in their heart for the term "Shut the Front door" and similar items.)

One addition: even if fuck is devalued, is it the case that we *always* turn to other forbidden words for shock? I'm thinking, not always. There seems to be another outlet: super-sizing existing swears. Even as "fuck" becomes more commonplace, you see more and more people becoming invention with phrases such as "unbe-fucking-lievable" "fuck-tastic" etc. True, these might not have the same bite that "fuck" did for your 4th-grade-self. And maybe its just an side-effect of the growing casual usage of fuck. But I still feel like we are treating the topic likes there's a set stock of words for offensiveness (William Macy's artwork aside). But folks tend to be a lot more inventive than that, especially when it comes to swearing.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Unknown -- yes I think there's something to that. Although I can't quite reconstruct the reaction now (perhaps due to "fuck"-exhaustion today), I recall being struck by "fuck me dead" the first time I heard it in a way that seemed more substantially more intense than the simple "fuck". But the intensifiers need some basic frisson to work with, I suspect.

Sergio Graziosi said...

I'm seriously jealous now: I'm annoyed that I failed to focus on the paradox of prohibition myself!
I guess our starting common ground is the realisation that if something may be received as offensive, that's not in itself a good reason to avoid saying it. I've actually went further and got close to suggesting that if something may be offensive, that may be a reason why it should be said. (The full argument is here, FWIW:

The paradox of prohibition does highlight a related issue, for me, at least. The trouble is that I'm always concerned with elitism, especially relevant to me once I've started writing, and writing philosophical stuff, and/or thoughts about politics. I have to grapple with the tension between trying to be relevant and accessible as opposed to writing things that can be digested and/or appreciated only by the initiated few.
In this context, the paradox of prohibition cuts in at least two (somewhat contradictory) ways:
First, if we accept that swear words owe (some of) their power to their being prohibited, we could end up in an awkward elitist corner, where we say "people should not use these words" and then make an exception for ourselves, so to tap into their derived power when we wish to.
Second, there is the social-standing side, which is very prominent here in the UK, and heavily relies on language: in our context, it would allow classifying people in derogatory ways if and when they use swear words too liberally.

You could synthesise the two and say: prohibiting certain words make their use somewhat socially "costly". You risk lowering the perception of your social standing every time you use them: these words would then be powerful because you can't use them for free. Thus, ending up using them in situations where they actually do cost can become a form of reverse social bragging, conveying the message "I can use these words because my standing allows me to bear the cost" or, in other contexts "I have no social standing to protect, and I will therefore swear liberally".

I think the above describes an important side effect of prohibition...

The other side of the coin is inflation, and what happens when language is impoverished because inflated swear words loose their power and get normalised. My insight here comes from Italian swearing traditions. Different Italian regions have important traditions that rely on foul language (somewhat informally codified according to regional rules), in most cases it is expected that sacred figures will be involved as a matter of necessity (a phrase would not count as foul if it didn't mention a saint at the very least). The result is institutionalised inflation, in some places cursing God is as normal as saying "Hi". The effect on language-usage however is remarkable and very funny: (some) people will specialise in inventiveness, and regularly produce the most astonishing and lengthy strings of foul-language. The result is that inventive swearing becomes also a signal of cleverness, somehow compensating (or erasing) the social cost I mention above, while producing a much more complex milieu.
I've experienced the flip side of this: by moving to the UK, I was surprised and unimpressed (saddened, really) by the general lack of inventiveness in swearing (at first, it seems that Britons just fuck everything!), until the "thick of it" TV series showed me that inventive invectives can be produced in English as well.
What this tells us is that inflation might actually be a good thing, after all: it forces to diversify and invent, while also making swearing more democratic/meritocratic because its social costs are mitigated by the inventiveness premium.

Just my string of barely organised thoughts, the tl;dr is: swear (forbidden) words are inevitably signals that can boost or hinder your social standing, depending on complex contextual factors...

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

A counterexample to the view that the word cheapens from overuse (warning: graphic):

Eddy Nahmias said...

Fuck! By my count, I just wrote the word for the 50th fucking (51!) time on this page. Aren't we contributing to its devaluation? I think there's a paradox in here but probably not the most fucking interesting one in philosophy.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Sergio: I think I pretty much agree both with your original post and with all the interesting thinks you mention in your comment above. Clearly, there are some complex social-standing issues involved in cursing which would be fascinating to explore more fully. (I'd wager that there's already some good sociological work on this.) And yes, I think inflation can lead to the need to be creative, which adds linguistic interest. On the other hand, when you drop a barbell on your foot, it's nice to have something really stinging you can say without having to put in creative work first!

Anon 05:21: Inflation! :-)

Anon 05:31: I'm not sure that's a counterexample exactly. I'd say that it's striking partly because of the repetition -- but my guess is that makes future occurrence of "fuck" in the show less powerful than if the word had not been so frequently used before.

Eddy: I concede both points.

Kevin McDonough said...

Tabarnak de marde this is an interesting discussion. Ah, fuck it. Just not the same.

Eric Campbell said...

Lenny Bruce encouraged the regular recitation of racial slurs for the same reason you (tongue-in-cheekily) recommend preachers encourage the recitation of swear words.

If we really believe the prohibition increases the shock (and harm?) value (with which I totally agree), then it seems to me that 'liberal' culture is going the wrong way by making even the mention of (e.g.) 'nigger' taboo, in favor of 'the n-word', which is supposed to be more sensitive or something. So it seems to me that if the decreased taboo of 'fuck' leads to more racial slurs, this could be a good thing, since we should expect such an increase to cause those slurs to lose their shock value. I do mean this to be tongue-in-cheek, but wouldn't it work?

Unknown said...

Lovely. You (and your readers) might be interested to know of a series of papers by the brilliant (and eccentric) Chicago linguist, Jim McCawley, writing under the pseudonym of Quong Phuc Dong of the South Hanoi Institute of Technology in the late '60s or early '70s, on the syntax of "fuck," "fucking," "fuck you," etc. I wasn't able to locate the papers, but I suspect that many linguists would be able to help you locate them. When I was a student many years ago, interested in linguistics, they were passed around in mimeograph copies, along with McCawley's guide to Asian food in the Chicago area. (He also published a guide to Chinese for reading the Chinese side of the menu.)

George Shaw said...

Oh, what the fuck....

Shane Glackin said...

On "cunt"; broadly speaking, Irish and Scots people use it in much the same way as "dick" or "prick". It has its particular nuances - there is no better illustration of the fine granularity of the English language than a description of London mayor Boris Johnson as "a cunt in twat's clothing" - but is basically just another sex organ-derived swearword, albeit ruder than most. And for one reason or another, it's usually applied to males.

Among Americans, it's typically applied to females, and has much more of the reductive connotation noted upthread; "X is (merely) an orifice, and good for nothing else". For good reason, with that undertone, it's a great deal more serious and taboo.

English people, I think, largely incline towards the Celtic understanding of its semantics. Propensity to actually use it - again, mostly of males - seems to vary much more by class than amongst the other groups mentioned.

Anonymous said...

"Yes, I sound like an old curmudgeon"

Correction, you are an old curmudgeon. :)

Sergio Graziosi said...

Thanks Eric,
reading your reply made me realise how much of my reasoning didn't manage to become clear enough and never reached my typing fingers.
On reflection, the things I've left implicit in my previous comment are:
1. Elitism and the paradox of prohibition:
If we advocate in favour of (actual and enforceable) policies to sanction the usage of inappropriate/foul/offensive language, because in this way we preserve the power of such language, we are being elitist in an indirect way. Or so I fear. That's because we plan to use such language, knowing we can bear the cost.
2. The dangers of inflation:
Based on my previous experience with Italian traditions, while I do see the drawbacks of inflation, I would be inclined to believe (based on hunches and circumstantial evidence) that the counterbalancing inventiveness is ultimately desirable, if one has to pick a side.
3. On offence:
Policing speech based on its perceived offensive potential seems like a Very Bad Idea, from where I stand.

Taken together, the three strands clearly point me in one direction, which is probably somewhat different from your own in principle , while might be indistinguishable in practice (leaving aside the differences with Rebecca's stance): my current conclusion is that resistance is futile and we can safely embrace inflation. I wouldn't go so far as advocating against using asterisks, because yes, they acknowledge the power of the masked word.
Thus, when it comes to actual policies, I don't see anything separating us, but perhaps the above explains why I felt the need to write down my thoughts: maybe they add some additional justifications to your own practical conclusions.


I would hope there is good sociological work on the matter, and envy the sociologists that had the chance to produce it (sounds like lot of fun!). Sadly, it's not my area, so I can offer no decent pointers.
As per "it's nice to have something really stinging you can say without having to put in creative work first", it surely is. To compensate for inflation, much of my commuting time (on a motorbike) is spent experimenting with "creative work", trying to discover funny substitutions for multilingual swear words. It's a mildly amusing activity in itself ;-). The hope is that when the barbell hits my foot some of that work will resurface effortlessly...


Oh well, all this comment feels like preaching to the converted. Thanks for (always being) thought provoking and for being so welcoming in here!

Kent Bach said...

I've got nothing to add to this thread, but if you've never heard this old riff on "fuck," it's still worth a listen, even if he is confused about intransitivity:

dbzdak said...

I've worked in places where "fuck" is pretty commonly sprinkled throughout all conversation and never noticed any of the "cheapening" effects. Clearly some empirical work is called for.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

A couple thoughts:

Shane: interesting and plausible. Thanks!
Sergio: I think we more or less agree with maybe a bit of difference in nuance or emphasis. I'm certainly not saying we should drop the hammer on anyone. Maybe I'd tolerate a bit more mild disapprobation for the general good than you would, but I'm hesitant about the downside of that, maybe more so in light of your nice point about elitism. I guess I don't feel much disapprobation personally, so it would be a bit of a pose I'm not sure I want to take. (Caveat: When my son says "fuck" or my wife does in front of our children, I do still feel some disapproval, though I don't care if you all swear to make the devil's hair curl. Hm!)
Anon: A middle-aged curmudgeon, thank you! ;-)
Kent: Funny. But not *as* funny as the audience seems to think, I think -- which itself is kind of a funny thing.
bhollis: Sure, empirical work. Do you think Templeton would fund a grant on this? (No, no flippin' way.)

Kent Bach said...

Eric: It was funnier then than it is now. Which supports your basic point.

DavidKastan said...

Re: the earlier discussion of the oddity that "fuck" was seemingly common before 1800 according to Google Ngram is a warping function of Google being unable to distinguish the long "s" of early type from "f", so the "fuck" statistics often include the word "suck."

chinaphil said...

I wonder how the paradox of prohibition works.

It seems like there could be at least two mechanisms:

1) Prohibition means that any use of the swear word is inherently transgressive, and has power because of the transgression.
2) Prohibition ensures that use of the swear word remains rare (or largely limited to specific social/linguistic contexts, or linguistically special for some other reason), and so its power when it is used comes from its rarity/special linguistic features.

This may just be because I'm a linguist, but my feeling is that the transgression path doesn't work that well. So I feel like it's the linguistic path that does most of the heavy lifting. I have a few jumbled thoughts about why this is.

1) There are many transgressive words, but they don't all seem to have the same power.
2) I compare other low-frequency words, like scintillating, or roc. When used in felicitous circumstances, these words seem to me to have great power as well.
3) I remember when I was young being warned specifically about not trying to use profanity to convey emotion in my creative writing. Again, this implies that infelicitous use of swear words is ineffective or bathetic - but it's still transgressive, so that suggests to me that the transgression isn't doing the work of making the words powerful.
4) "Fuck" really isn't transgressive any more for large swathes of the population (including me). But it is celebrated for its linguistic versatility, as in the videos linked by others.

Having said all that, there is something compelling about the social story around swearing. The key thing, I think, is that you don't swear in front of your social superiors. Kids don't swear in front of adults, you don't swear in front of your boss, or a senator, or the queen. So swearing sends a message of social equality (among friends) or dominance (when you swear at someone). And that kind of social messaging is rare...

Perhaps that's it, actually. Is the power of swearing related to the fact that almost all other forms of language have been equalised? In the US, first name terms are pretty universal; formal greetings are mostly gone, aren't they? Swearing is one of the last remaining indicators of social status/power.

Esa said...

Interesting post! Christopher Hom has a paper ("A puzzle about pejoratives", Philosophical Studies 2012) where he analyses the semantics of 'fucking' in detail, and he argues that it is a pejorative term whose semantic content entails that if x and y fuck, then x is less desirable if female, and more desirable if male, all because of having sex outside of marriage (which is the neutral counterpart of 'fucking'). So if this view about the semantic content of 'fucking' is right, this term embeds a gendered view about the morality of sex outside of marriage that is problematic. It could be argued that this is a reason for not using the term.

Callan S. said...

I totally agree! I occasionally resort even to 'fiddlesticks' sometimes just to save it for that one bad day (as the joker would put it). It needs to remain underground and subversive in order to keep it's value! Otherwise you pushing around a wheelbarrow of F' to just buy a loaf of bread! (ah, you know what I mean! The currency parralel you drew yourself)

Of course ironically by talking about it so openly, you have devalued the word somewhat. But you've had a lot of other posts without it, so I guess after growing the market for awhile it's okay for a bit of a repeat spend!

Sometimes my children, well they don't use the F word but some swear word which is kind of above their paygrade and I tell them 'That's a word for people who are actually stressed - you can wait until you have some genuine stress in your life before you're allowed to use that'

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sorry about the slow comments approval and replies! Out of town with family -- back in the saddle tomorrow, I hope.

Anonymous said...

When "God" died, "Fuck" became the most important word in the English language.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the interesting comments, folks. One of the best comments threads in a while!

David: Nice point. Esp. in old Germanic-influenced print, the "f" and the "s" are practically indistinguishable -- seems likely that there would be lots of OCR errors there.

Chinaphil: I'm attracted to both the paths you mention, which seem to synergize. One way of connecting your point about transgression with your point about status is to think of transgression as social-context-relative. Some people might not find it transgressive when chatting with friends, but still find it highly transgressive in front of parents or when being interviewed to serve on a jury. Consequently, transgressing sends the social status signal you nicely emphasize. As you suggest, declining to swear is among the decreasing number of linguistic markers of respect directed up the hierarchy in English.

Esa: Interesting! I'll have to check out that article. I do think in general that there is something unfortunate about how the angry, pejorative flavor of "fuck" (in many contexts) connects with sex and perhaps also problematic views about sex roles.

Callan: Interesting approach to dealing with hearing it from children -- though I wouldn't underestimate the genuine stress of childhood!

Anon Jul 14 02:33 -- thanks for the link -- funny video! Also makes me think of the sharp decline in religious swearing, perhaps related to the general secularization of society.