The latest explosion related to our President is about his alleged use of a profane adjective to describe a poor third world country(s) while sitting in a high level meeting discussing border security and immigration. I thought it would be a good time to dissect profanity and lend a little color to it’s use in America today. You see, I know a little something about profanity, having been raised by a Green Beret Colonel, who knew more about profanity than anyone I have ever known. In spite of his perceived shortcomings in this regard, we loved the man dearly, and often stood in awe as he artfully laced a directive with profanity at a masters level.
Profanity is described as socially offensive language. The very sensitive among us, such as Dick Durbin, often refer to profanity as “bad language”, “strong language” “crude language”, “coarse language”, “lewd language”, or simply swearing, cursing or cussing. In most circles, profanity is considered strongly impolite, rude or offensive. For students of language, profanity falls into a category of formulaic language, a subset of of a given language’s lexicon, often reflecting intense emotion. Wow, and you thought it was simply cussing!
Profanity, predictably, has it’s roots in religion, and emanates from the Latin word “profanus”, meaning roughly “outside of the temple”. Profanity does not rise to the level of blasphemy and in itself is not sinful, however the scriptures do speak against swearing. Interestingly, many of our swear words are Germanic in origin, rather than Latin, however the really hard hitting words are, indeed Latin in origin. Now for the real technical stuff……
Analyses of recorded conversations reveal that of an average of the roughly 80-90 words that a person speaks each day, between 0.5% to 0.7% of these words are swear words! Now, I know this generalization does not include everybody, because not everybody is practiced enough to use profanity effectively! So that you may properly guage the use of profanity in America, a relatively recent poll concluded that Canadians cuss more often than we do. I suppose it is the cold weather that causes their language to be a little hotter than ours! I am guessing here, but suspect the strong Germanic influence on profanity probably traces some of it’s origin to Vikings and Huns, both groups adept at slaughtering their enemies with rather intense emotion. I find it highly unlikely that a Viking, when running his sword through a combatant, politely uttered ” I know it hurts a little, but will feel better soon”. It is that intense emotion thing again!
For the benefit of Mr. Durbin, studies have shown that swearing performs certain psychological functions. For instance, swearing is a very widespread but misunderstood component of anger management! It is also worth noting that, and I am quoting New York Times author Natalie Angier here, “Men generally curse more than women, unless said women are in a sorority, and that university provosts swear more than librarians or the staff members of the university day care center”. There are, of course exceptions here, as my wife was not in a sorority but can hold her own when she is…well let’s just say, managing her anger! Yet another psychological fact is that cursing relieves physical pain. In fact there are psychologists who recommend cursing if you hurt yourself. Good to hear, because for most of us, cursing seems a perfectly normal response to slamming your fingers in a car door, or the pain of childbirth. The use of profanity to express intense emotion was graphically demonstrated one sunny morning by a trio of young Mennonite boys who arrived at our property to drill post holes in the incredibly rocky strata around Jefferson City. They arrived in a dilapidated old drilling rig that had to be chocked to prevent it from rolling off the very high hill we were working on. One of the young men, on top of the rig, had just started lowering the drill when the truck slipped the chocks and careened wildly down the hill. The young Mennonite screamed a long line of profanities as he held on for dear life, prompting me to shudder in amazement as he finally came to rest against a tree halfway down the hill. He looked at me sheepishly when I caught up with him, having wet himself and still muttering oaths under his breath. It happens to everyone at some point in time.
So that my readers have a better understanding of the mechanics of swearing, it is important to note that cursing can be broken down to five possible functions. These functions are pretty well self explanatory and include, abusive swearing, cathartic swearing (pain), dysphemistic swearing (speaker thinks negatively about something), emphatic swearing (this is important to the speaker) and idiomatic swearing (indicating a degree of informality between the speaker and listener). Green Beret Colonels, and police officers are adept at mixing these functions, as are apparently ladies with a sorority background! Add to this list, perfectly lady like women who are the daughters of farmers and who married a trooper…….God bless them!
I am hoping this piece will at least give pause to the notion that profanity is the work of an empty brain or is indicative of a limited vocabulary. As a final note, I offer an example of the entirely appropriate use of a profanity laced response to a situation. I had just stopped a rather large, cross dressing, black man who had left a service station before paying for the gas he had pumped. This fellow was surly, wearing pancake makeup and panic stricken at the thought of returning to jail. I placed him in the wall search position on the back of my patrol car and began the distasteful task of frisking him preparatory to handcuffing him. When I reached up and grabbed his huge left hand to place cuffs on him, I found that he was holding a shortened linoleum knife in it. I was in a bad position and correctly surmised that a strong verbal command was in order. I did NOT politely ask him to drop the knife, but assured him, in terms that my father would have been proud of, that I would shoot him on the spot if he did not drop the knife. He did so, but offered a very strong, “bad language” response to my promise. I won the point……
There you have it……profanity 101.