Just what we needed, a history of swear words. The category comprises curses, profanity, obscenity and even blasphemy.
Be that as it may, Melissa Mohr has written a book that, by all accounts is a valuable contribution to the history of swearing.
Among her intriguing conclusions: polite society used to be defined by its rejection of profanity involving bodily functions like fornication and excretion. Being a public person meant keeping your private matters to yourself. Today, polite society is nonchalant about profanity but it is militantly opposed to derogatory references to race, gender, ethnicity and certain kinds of sexual behavior.
Joseph Bottum summarizes this aspect of Mohr’s argument:
In her account, the sex-based swear words so reviled by the Victorians have become almost commonplace: No real stigma attaches to their use these days, although certain classes may still feel a little antiquated frisson when they write or say them. The real swear words of our time, she notes, are race- and gender-based epithets, which polite society has banned—words that, indeed, almost define polite society by their absence.
It isn’t just profane terms that were proscribed, but often more technical references to private matters were also frowned upon. Saying “shit” at the dinner table was vulgar, but people did not sit around talking about fecal matter either.
Obviously, using polite language was a sign of status. When you use the more profane words you are lowering your status. When someone curses you out or insults you profane language, he is trying to diminish you. It seems to be a way to compete for status.
Of course, the difference between public and private reflects the division between the sacred and the profane.
Since polite society is defined as a place where social harmony prevails, certain rules must be observed. The purpose is not to fight, or even to compete over the dinner table, but to socialize, to get along.
Trying to gain an advantage at someone else’s expense, by injuring him does not contribute to this goal. Using language that shows you to be out of place socially produces general discomfort.
On the other hand, some people prefer not to be part of polite society. They believe it to be phony. They sprinkle obscenities throughout their speech in order to designate themselves as proud members of a different social stratum.
But, what does it mean to swear?
For one, Colin Burrow points out, swearing can also involve taking an oath, giving your word or making a promise.
Importantly, when you swear an oath or give your word you are engaging in an action. Swearing commits you to doing something, or even not doing something. Whatever you meant when you swore the oath, your words bind you to do something.
The same applies to the effort to pin derogatory labels on people.
Swearing is an action, and one that can hurt, harm, engage and enrage, as Homer and Aristophanes and Chaucer and Shaw knew. When a swear word is used casually as an intensifier it can carry a residuum of the pain and shock that it is capable of inflicting in other circumstances. That transfer of shock is part of what we do when we swear, whether we want to or not.
This makes obscenity a subspecies of what J. L. Austin called doing things with words. If a minister pronounces a couple husband and wife, he is doing something. If the Queen of England christens a ship she is doing something.
When you give your word, it is assumed that you will honor your commitment, that you will be there when you said you would be there. Your oath will cause other people to take certain actions themselves because they know that your words and your actions will coincide
Similarly, when you curse someone you are doing something to him, much as when a witch casts a spell or a god curses a Greek hero.
You might consider witchcraft to be mumbo jumbo, but you certainly believe that certain derogatory terms hurt other people.
Sometimes a curse is intended to inflict pain; at times, people use a word that would be acceptable in some places but not in others. Some people have think enough skin to ignore a curse. Others have such thin skin that they become traumatized.
Philosophically, when you do something with words, the doing supersedes the meaning.
It is easiest to understand in terms of curses, but the true prototype is the proper name. If we are to believe Saul Kripke, proper names designate unique objects. By extension, they do not served to convey a meaning.
The Chinese words Hong Kong mean: fragrant harbor. And yet, once they become the proper name of a place they will continue to be used regardless how fragrant or how rancid the harbor smells. The clearest indication of the way proper names are used is the fact that they are not translated from one language into another. No matter what language you speak, Hong Kong is Hong Kong. No English speaking person ever says that he is travelling to Fragrant Harbor.
In much the same way, many people use a word like “fuck” in a way that removes its normal meaning. When someone says “what the fuck” he is not referring to fornication. And when someone says, “Oh, shit” he is not referring to excrement.
In both cases the use of profane expletives is an attempt to articulate a deeply felt and authentic emotion.
Of course, when you pepper your discourse with “oh, shit” you are also reducing your social status. People who make a public spectacle of their private emotions lose respect.
The exception lies in certain worlds where using such expletives signal coolness or extreme youth.