By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of With Associates.
Swear words are changing, I shit you not.
Admittedly, they’ve never been known to represent stability. Born out of passion and moments of intensity, it comes as little surprise that these obscenities have mutated considerably over time.
Quite often they diminish in power. Some downright become forgotten altogether.
Take consarn! for example. It’s a substitute for goddamn that nobody will likely revive. There are a million more of these fossilized curses gathering dust in our forgotten memories of language. It’s an anthropological ocean floor containing linguistic oddities like ‘snails (not the crustacean, but a shortening of “by God’s nails!”) and great horn spoon!
These days you take a walk downtown and are met by a curse-u-copia of “pisses,” “fucks,” and the other misfit utterances of George Carlin’s famous “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television.” They are words that, up until recently, were practically dangerous for their considerable stopping power.
When a society’s values change, however, properly insulting its population requires adopting a new edge.
Eighteenth-century curse words originally aimed at targeting a person’s heritage (bastard, whoreson) are not nearly as offensive anymore because, as a society, we no longer place a particularly high value on those types of insults. Looking to more contemporary expletives, dialecticians and enthusiastic cursers agree that the word dick is experiencing a banal retirement at the moment. It’s lost its punch for becoming a less-offensive synonym for jerk; divorced from its sexual connotation.
Lost relevance and dissociation from a word’s original essence aren’t the only ways to neutralize swearing. Sometimes sheer overuse can sap a word entirely of its shock value.
The internet has expedited this disintegration to an unprecedented rate. One of the only remaining “Wild-West frontiers,” an infinite array of blogs and other websites offer free reign (and an open mic) to innumerable faceless denizens willing to voice anything and everything that comes to mind. To put it simply, it’s a lot easier to swear in “public” now and not be held accountable.
Social media, of course, is at the crux of the online swearing phenomenon. Slate recently conducted a new Facebook developer tool capable of estimating the total number of user interactions that mention a word or phrase. It then categorizes the results into gender, age group, and region. During a three-day period, shit appeared in 10.5 million US Facebook interactions, fuck in 9.5 million, and damn in 6.3 million.
Technology continues to swing its hammer at taboos, making the mother-of-all swear words, fuck, to soften as a result. Since Cohen vs. California in the early ‘70s–where the Supreme Court held that “the State may not, consistently with the First and Fourteenth Amendments, make the simple public display of this single four-letter expletive a criminal offense”–the word has undergone a radical transformation that often renders it a ubiquitous replacement for a number of modifiers or signs of disdain. The meaning of the f-word certainly doesn’t have to be sexual anymore. Existing as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, or compound, fuck has become commonplace in our culture.
Hell, Vice President Joe Biden even thought it admissive enough to utter the word on live television. Moreover, The New York Times recently broke its longstanding editorial standard of refraining from the explicative when they let the word quietly sneak through their lines of print.
Speaking of swearing on the air, broadcast television happens to be one of the few places left in mainstream media where you can’t drop f-bombs and get away with swearing.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) continues to make it their personal vendetta to purge our nation’s airwaves of material they suspect capable of corrupting the young. However, despite their efforts swearing on television still increased drastically over recent years.
Between 2005 and 2010, profanity increased 69 percent on broadcast TV. Yet if the FCC happens to cite a broadcast for even one brief transgression, the broadcaster could find itself in some pretty serious trouble.
Despite plenty of Supreme Court Justices who stand in staunch opposition to these measures of censorship, it looks like curse words will continue to be an uphill battle for broadcast networks–much to the chagrin of agencies looking to expand their freedoms of expression.
These media agencies have become a black sheep that risks getting left behind by the rest of a new forward-thinking society. All they want is to change with the times, and it’s easy to sympathize with their case.
Protecting our nation’s children is always a priority, but why are we trying to shield them from words that are quickly becoming staples of media exchange and societal banter? It’s like the regressive parents that believe shielding their kids from sexual education will help preserve them in the long run, rather than understanding the ignorance it really propagates.
It’s just a goddamn word, after all.
That being said, where is profanity headed? Is there anything still sacred?
It turns out there is. Our values change, but that doesn’t mean they disappear altogether. There has been a noticeable shift in taboos from sacrilege and gross-out topics to more personal and mean spirited insults. Racism, sexism, fatist terms, those making fun of disabilities… these profanities directed towards identity and generalizing populations are currently seen to be far more insulting.
Wait… swearing might actually amount towards a signifier of social progress?
To read more on this topic, check out Molly Freeman’s article on prohibiting profanity.