Profanity is a word choice or usage which many consider to be offensive. The original meaning of the term was restricted to blasphemy, sacrilege or taking God's name in vain (profane speech, or swear word), especially expressions such as "God damn it", "go to Hell", and "damn you". The word bloody may belong in this category. They are sometimes made mild, resulting in less recognizable forms, such as the minced oaths.
However, the meaning has been extended to include scatological, sexist, homophobic, racist, or sexual terms (in English, primarily shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cock, dick, tits, twat, faggot, nigger, and frequently, bitch and bastard). Also when used "in vain", or to express discontent Jesus, Christ, Jesus Christ, and God damn are considered profanity. The list includes words that are merely vulgar as well as those thought obscene. Compare the concept of the four-letter word.
There has always been great difficulty in defining profanity. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission, in response to complaints about a 1973 broadcast comedy routine by George Carlin called Seven words you can never say on television, ruled that such language could not be broadcast "at times of day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience." The Supreme Court of the United States upheld this act of censorship in 438 U.S. 726 (1978). The words occurring in Carlin's monologue were: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits. Carlin's routine using these words has since been broadcast, however. In the early 1960s, Lenny Bruce had been taken to court for using some of these same words in his own comedy routines.
Profane words with multiple meanings
Some words are profane or vulgar in one context but completely acceptable in another. For example, cock is commonly used to describe a male chicken, and is nonoffensive, and as a verb ("she cocked her head to the side") it is nonoffensive. "Dick", as a nickname derived from "Richard", never raises objection. "Faggot" is also nonoffensive when used in the word's original context— a bundle of sticks— but becomes highly profane when directed at a homosexual person. In these cases, the alternate meanings have no connection to the profanity with, coincidentally, the same name. "Tits" is considered profane, but "teats" is not. "Arse", considered as objectionable as "ass" in the United Kingdom, is considered nonoffensive (along with bloody) in the United States.
Some vulgarities have emerged from nonoffensive words that become offensive in a particular context. The word "broad" is decidedly nonoffensive, but when applied to a woman (potentially connected to the idea of a broad chest) becomes vulgar. The slang word "sucks" emerged from a nonoffensive word for suction, and became a serious profanity as "sucking" became a euphemism for fellatio. As "sucks" grew in popularity, and was prolifically used in nonsexual contexts, and alternative nonsexual expansions of "sucks" emerged ("that sucks like a vacuum", "that sucks zucchini") it became decidedly less offensive, and is today considered a " PG"-phrase.
The word "niggardly", synonymous with "stingy", is nonoffensive but increasingly rarely used because it sounds similar to "nigger" (there is no historical association between the words). In 1999, when Washington, DC's black mayor, Anthony A. Williams, pressed for the resignation of his white staff member, David Howard, because Howard uttered the word "niggardly" in a private staff meeting, the ensuing debate had some elitists snickering  (http://www.adversity.net/special/niggardly.htm).
Terms of profanity have historically been taboo words. Some words originally considered profane have become much less offensive with the increasing secularity of society, while others, primarily racial or ethnic epithets which can be considered part of hate speech, have become increasingly taboo.
The word cunt maintains much of its taboo status at least partly due to the influence of feminism, though other feminists are attempting to "reclaim" a neutral or complimentary status for this word. Shakespeare hinted at the word in Hamlet and Henry V: Hamlet quips about "country matters" when he tries to lay his head in Ophelia's lap; and the French Princess Katherine is amused by the word gown for its similarity to the French for cunt, coun.
Many people today consider the word nigger much more offensive than sexual or scatalogical terms. (Although it depends on the context in which it is used -- people of African descent sometimes use the term among themselves, typically dropping the r and ending on the vowel: nigga.) This sensitivity to the word nigger has even extended to the point of attempting to ban the use of the word niggardly (meaning "stingy"), which many mistakenly believe to be related to the word nigger.
Psycholinguistic studies have demonstrated that profanity and other taboo words produce physical effects in people who read or hear them, such as an elevated heart rate.
This fact is seen by some as evidence that reclaiming of words such as queer is a valid way to remove its power. See also the article on nigger, as well as Drum and Bass for the reclaiming of the word jungle.
The offensiveness or peceived intensity or vulgarity of the various profanities can change over time, with certain words becoming more or less offensive as time goes on. For example, in modern times the word piss is usually considered mildly vulgar and somewhat impolite, whereas it appears in the King James Version of the Bible where modern translations would use the word urine (2 Kings 18:27; Isa 36:12) or urinate (1 Sam 25:22, 25:34; 1 Kings 14:10, 16:11, 21:21; 2 Kings 9:8).
The relative severity of the various English profanities, as perceived by the public, was studied on behalf of the British Broadcasting Standards Commission, Independent Television Commission, BBC and Advertising Standards Authority; the results of this jointly commissioned research were published in December 2000 in a paper called "Delete Expletives". It listed the profanities in order of severity, the top ten being cunt, motherfucker, fuck, wanker, nigger, bastard, prick, bollocks, arsehole, and paki, in that order. 83% of respondents regarded cunt as "very severe"; 16% thought the same about shit and 10% crap. Only about 1% thought cunt was "not swearing"; 9% thought the same about shit and 32% crap.
The situation is rendered more complex when other languages enter the picture. Merde in French, and Scheiße in German (both usually translated as shit) are also quite common. It is also interesting to note that while German and other languages' profanity seems to focus on precipitation, English seems to have an issue with sexuality in this respect. Likewise, in European Spanish, coņo (usually translated as cunt in English) is very common in informal spoken discourse, meaning no more than "Hey!" or "Christ!"
Some scholars have noted that while the French and Spanish are comfortable hearing native speakers use these words, they tend to hear the "stronger" meaning when the same words are spoken by non-native speakers. This may be similar to the differences in the acceptability of queer or nigger depending on who is saying the words. Or it may be an example of how it is easier to learn swear words in a new language or dialect than to learn the fine shades of intensity which accompany their use.
A profane word in one language often sounds like an ordinary word in another. Fuck sounds like the French words for seal (phoque) and jib (foc), as well as the Romania word for do (I do = eu fac); shit sounds like the Russian for "to sew". Even names in one language may appear as vulgar words in another linguistic community, which causes many immigrants to change their names (common Vietnamese personal names include Phuc and Bich). A particular coincidence is the Hungarian and Spanish words for curve: Spanish curva sounds like a Slavic and Hungarian kurva meaning "prostitute", and Hungarian kanyar sounds like coņo, mentioned above. In Romanian curva means "prostitute". See another example in Laputa. Additionally, puta is genitive and accusative case of two often used words in south Slavic languages; but in Portuguese, means "prostitute", and filho da - is an offensive word, similar to son of a b****.
Quebec French can string a few basic terms from Roman Catholic liturgy into quite impressive strings of invective of up to a minute or more. This is known as sacre.
Profanity took a very interesting form in Russia where there exists a language of sorts, most of its words based on four basic profane roots -- nouns penis, whore, cunt and verb fuck. At least two hundred derivative words exist in this language, plus countless word combinations. It is possible to sensibly communicate using just these four basic roots. Due to countless very fine nuances (stress on a different syllable changes the meaning of certain words etc.) it is not easy to master that language which is very widely used in Russia, especially in rural areas. Before the 1990s these words never appeared in print (except special articles published in universities) and they remain officially banned on TV and in the movies.
Japanese is occasionally cited as an example of a language with little or no profanity, but this myth is mostly due to a misunderstanding of the complex system of politeness levels in the language. Common verbs, like "to do" or "to give", have multiple forms conveying various levels of respect, and depending on the context the choice of verb can be offensive: for example, the condescending verb yaru for "to give" is perfectly acceptable when giving food to a dog or watering a plant, but cannot be used towards an equal or superior without serious offense. Similar levels of politeness apply to pronouns, with some for pronouns for "you", including kisama (貴様, lit. "my Lord"), temae (手前, "in front") and otaku (お宅, "honorable house") having gone through the euphemism treadmill and become extremely offensive. These make it entirely possible to unintentionally gravely insult someone without using any profane words in the Western sense.
However, Japanese does have a number of patently offensive expressions which are banned in all broadcast media and frequently censored in text: examples include manko (マンコ, "vagina") and chinpo (チンポ, "penis"). If used, these and other offensive expressions are commonly printed with the central character replaced by the placeholder sign maru (〇), so manko becomes ma-ko (マ〇コ). For most parts, these terms carry only their literal meanings and cannot be used as insults per se, but some words like kusottare (糞っ垂れ, "shit-drip") and yariman (やり万, "whore") are strong invective on par with anything found in English. Milder exclamations allowed on TV include baka (バカ, "stupid"), bakayarō (バカヤロー, "idiot") and chikushō (畜生, "hell").
One possible reason for the relative paucity of profanity is because of the belief of Kotodama (言霊), lit. word spirits. Kotodama appear when spoken, written, or even thought and they can easily be "tainted" with ill intentions and evil spirits. Even today, Japanese avoid mentioning directly or with words that imply harm to keep away tainted evil Kotodama. This, of course, can be reversed to bring about harm to someone or something, and common everyday words are used profanely in this case.
Another reason is that Buddhism and Shinto, which were part of the Japanese belief system, offered equal rights and protections to female and male. Prostitution, shamed in many religions, is merely a job, and virginity, praised in many religions, is just a condition in a female's life. In Kojiki, to lure out the highest deity in Shinto, Amaterasu, a female deity performed a dance either unclothed or took off clothes as a part of performance in front of other deities. Some of those that study Kojiki have gone as far as to claim that this implies that an actual sex act was performed.
Profanity in Cantonese of Hong Kong is called Chouhau (粗口), maybe the rudist one among other profanity.
A computer programming language called f*ckf*ck has been devised using the same idea, based on another computer language known as Brainfuck, which actually has more to do with confusing the programmer (having only 8 operations), hence the name.
External links and references
- Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression (ISSN US 0363-3659)
- Mellie, Roger, "Roger's Profanisaurus (http://www.viz.co.uk/profanisaurus/profanis.htm)", Fulchester Industries/IFG Ltd.
- Review of Emotions, Taboos and Profane Language by Zsuzsanna Ard (http://accurapid.com/journal/16review.htm)
- The BurnMeister (http://www.rikai.com/perl/Burn.pl) A (humorous) tool to add grammatically appropriate profanity to arbitrary English text.
- Delete Expletives (http://www.ofcom.org.uk/research/consumer_audience_research/tv/tv_audience_reports/delete_expletives.pdf), paper prepared for the Broadcasting Standards Council and other British public bodies and now available on the website of OFCOM, the UK's broadcasting and telecommunications regulator.