Sunday, December 02, 2007

Taboo Words - A Self Exam

I started writing this as a comment to a post by The Exterminator over at No More Hornets. The post is “My friend ‘Fuck’: A Tribute”. Having seen it after it had already been up a day, I was mildly surprised that a post with that title would have only six comments! But I felt sure that Philly Chief would be one of them! And, had I given it a thought, I could have predicted his opening paragraph. What I could not have predicted is that all of the other comments were from females. There’s some vestigial sexism for you! I admit it.

I'm having a little different feeling about this than Exterminator. I'll tell you why and I'd like to hear what all of you think.

I seldom use the word "fuck" in writing. In hundreds of posts around the Atheosphere and on my own blog, I would be surprised if you could find it more than 3 or 4 times. I'll probably use it more during the course of this post than all other times combined. I use it more when talking, but even then it depends on the company.

And that brings me to my thought process on using it. First, I should admit, I grew up in a house where the word was never permissible under any circumstances. I obviously grew out of that, in much the same way as I grew out of god. But it would be silly for me to deny that there is quite possibly some residual hesitation because of that. Because I'm pretty self-aware I don't think it's a big factor. I've whispered, said, shouted, "FUCK" enough times in my 54 years as to convince me of this.

But I'm aware of the power of the word over others. So, in company that I either don't care if they are offended or know they won't be, I'll use it as frequently as called for. In other circumstances, including the Atheosphere, where I know my words will reach all kinds of sensibilities, I'm more restrained in the use of it.

Exterminator brings up Steven Pinker's latest book "The Stuff of Thought" and some of the things he says about "fuck". Pinker said a lot of interesting things about the word and “taboo words” in general. One of the points he makes that resonates strongly with my own desire for personal restraint is that taboo words are used many times to take control of the thoughts of others. What does he mean by this? Because of the ancient aspects of taboo language in the brain, when one hears a taboo word, they have no conscious choice available to ignore it. Ones attention is riveted on that word – enjoy it or hate it.

To me, that feels like a power play and I try not to make power plays on people if it isn’t absolutely necessary. When I’m speaking or writing to a wide audience, I don’t know who might be effected, but that very fact makes me more reserved. Pinker: “Thanks to the automatic nature of speech perception, a taboo word kidnaps our attention and forces us to consider its unpleasant connotations. That makes all of us vulnerable to a mental assault whenever we are in earshot of other speakers, as if we were strapped to a chair and could be given a punch or a shock at any time”. I don’t do things the way I do because of Pinker, but what Pinker says reflects the gut level feeling I already have. In fact, Pinker doesn't particularly advise restraint!

Pinker talks about another aspect of taboo words that relates to my own usage. One of the reasons for using curse words is the cathartic value of blowing off steam. In talking about brain mechanisms that may play a role in cathartic swearing, he says:

One of them is an electrophysiological response that kicks in when people notice they have just made an error. It emanates from the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the limbic system involved in the monitoring of cognitive conflict. In public, cognitive neuroscientists call this response the Error-Related Negativity; in private they call it the Oh-Shit Wave”.

After describing the so-called “rage circuit”, a part of the brains of all mammals, he goes on to explain a hypothesis about cathartic swearing.

A sudden pain or frustration engages the Rage circuit, which activates parts of the limbic brain connected with negative emotion. Among them are representations of concepts with a strong emotional charge and the words connected to them, particularly the versions in the right hemisphere, with its heavier involvement in unpleasant emotions. The surge of an impulse for defensive violence may also remove the safety catches on aggressive acts ordinarily held in place by the basal ganglia, since discretion is not the better part of valor during what could be the last five seconds of your life. In humans, these inhibited responses may include the uttering of taboo words. Recall that the Rage response in animals also includes a fearsome yelp. Perhaps the combination of a firing up of negative concepts and words, a release of inhibition on antisocial acts, and the urge to make a sudden sharp noise culminates in an obscenity rather than the traditional mammalian shriek. (Of course, when people experience severe pain, they show that our species has also retained the ability to holler and howl.) Cathartic swearing, then, would come from a cross-wiring of the mammalian Rage circuit with human concept and vocal routines.

I can see the strong relation between this description and my own way of using “fuck” and other swear words. When speaking, I’m much more likely, in anger or pain, to blurt out one of them almost as an instinctive reaction. I still attempt, on a conscious level, to moderate the release of the words based on the people within earshot. Sometimes I’m successful with this, other times not! Certainly though, when writing I am in full control of my emotions. This is not to say that emotions don’t play a part in what I have to say. Clearly you could go back and point out posts to me in which I was obviously effected by emotions while writing. But I don’t blurt out. My thoughts are much more finely crafted in writing than in speech.


Most of us have heard the story about “fuck” being a thing from the Middle Ages where, in order to have sex, one needed the King’s approval. Fornication Under Consent of King was a placard to be affixed to the bedroom door, and later it was abbreviated as F.U.C.K. This is nothing more than urban legend for the roots of the word. It’s actually a derivative of a Northern European word for “thrust”. (Pinker, 2007)


Anonymous said...

I think Van Halen had it right: For

John Evo said...


That's nothing more than Urban Halen.

Infidel753 said...

Personally -- and I know others feel differently -- I loathe the word. Profanity usually comes across as aggressive and intimidating, and very often is in fact intended that way. It has its place in those rare instances where extreme anger or frustration must be vented, but in general I prefer not to be confronted with it.

In the case of this particular word, too, I dislike the fact that our language uses specifically sexual terms as profanity to express rage and disgust. Most other languages I've studied do not do this (Russian, oddly enough, is an exception) -- for example, German profanity consists almost entirely of excremental references, which seems much more appropriate. Sex is not dirty or disgusting and I prefer not to hear it evoked with ugly, vulgar language.

John Evo said...

Infidel said: for example, German profanity consists almost entirely of excremental references, which seems much more appropriate. Sex is not dirty or disgusting and I prefer not to hear it evoked with ugly, vulgar language.

I agree with you that it kind of bizarre that a beautiful act (sex) would be made into a bad word. But that's partly because the "beautiful act" isn't always so. It can also be one of our ugliest acts. Then you throw in the Judeo/Christian obsession with sexuality of any kind and you can certainly see how it would be used as a taboo.

Additionally, while I am no linguist and have to rely on my reading of Pinker, Chomsky and others, they seem pretty certain that you are wrong and that all languages contain taboo words in regards to 3 areas - sex, religion and waste products. Most also have taboo words using disease as the basis.

I think if you deeply examine that German, you may find that while the MAIN taboo words are about waste products, they also have swear words for sex and religion.

Anonymous said...

I'll resist my immediate impulse to be flippant and declare that the mere fact of an idea's being associated with Noam Chomsky is sufficient to discredit it. :-) But having a fair degree of knowledge of linguistics, I'm immediately skeptical of any statement that "all languages" have or do this or that. German certainly has religious swear words such as verdammt, equivalent to "dammit!", though these are not used nearly as much as the evocative Scheiß ("shit"), which can actually be attached to any noun as a prefix for effect (example: Mein Scheißauto ist kaputt -- "My $#@!% car isn't working").

There is the verb ficken, cognate to "fuck" and with the same literal meaning, which is a vulgar reference to the sex act. But it is not used as a swear word as we use "fuck".

However, when I was a young guy (back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth), I knew German well enough that I once had a ten-minute conversation with a German couple in Berlin, after which they were astonished to find out that I was not actually German. And even so, I don't recall ever finding any sign of sexual terms actually being used as profanity the way we use the word "fuck", to express rage or disgust.

I cannot claim the expertise of a native speaker, of course. Perhaps Ute will stop by at some point and enlighten us.

I don't recall sexual swear words in Japanese either -- the main forms of profanity there are excremental as well -- but that's a language of which I have more limited knowledge. The worst "fighting word" in Japanese is actually the vulgar pronoun kisama, literally just meaning "you". In the context of their culture, it makes sense.

The worst swear word in Arabic is certainly sexual -- quss ummak, literally "your mother's vulva". But that's to be expected from a culture so sexually repressed that it makes Bob Jones University look like Amsterdam.

Gah. I start off objecting to swearing and end up doing enough of it to startle sailors from several nations?! Fuck it.

----- Infidel753

The Exterminator said...

Evo, Infidel:
You're not addressing my main point, which is that the word -- dismissed entirely from any sexual meaning, which clearly it is when it's used as a "swear" -- is fun and/or cathartic to say. I mean this in a purely physical way: the mouth feels good.

Also, I would argue against the power-play assertion. I think for the least educated amongst us that explanation may work, but not for anybody else. Once again, I refer you to my original post, which you seem to have looked over only cursorily.

Please read my essay again, both of you. To tell you the truth, you both sound kinda priggish to me.

John Evo said...

@ Infidel - I share your distaste for Chomsky, though I suspect for different reasons. I'm guessing you don't like his politics. When it comes to a scientist, I really don't care about their politics and I probably agree with him more than I disagree there. However, I think he has been proven wrong on his views of how linguists fits into the evolutionary story of Homo sapiens. No one can dispute his KNOWLEDGE of linguistics though. Pinker studied at his foot, but now Pinker has surpassed him in developing testable, conclusive theories of cognitive science.

@ Ex

Buddy, I've been called much worse things, so I take no offense at priggish. But I do take some offense that you think I would just casually glance through your post and then write something totally unrelated. I thought you knew me better than that by now!

Fact: I read your post so carefully that I was step-by-step following instructions on how to position my mouth as I slowly savored the feeling of the word.

Fact: I was saying fuckety-fuck-fuck and every other fuck because I couldn't stop thinking about fuck!

Fact: I thought it was one of the funnier posts I've read it quite some time. I really enjoyed it. Thanks for writing it.

Fact: Like many other issues that come up out here in the Atheosphere, this post got me thinking about something related (my feelings about using the word fuck). I saw a disagreement between how you feel about it and how I do and I refer specifically to your closing remark

The Atheosphere is about freedom from religion, but it’s also about freedom of speech. Nobody’s gonna call “foul language” on you for saying whatever you want. In fact, I’d guess that many of you, as I do, enjoy reading “fuck,” writing “fuck,” hearing “fuck,” and saying “fuck.” As I noted at the beginning of this post: it’s fun. In fact, it’s the funnest English word there is.

While I agree with much of this, I have a personal disagreement with how I feel about using the word fuck in writing. I wanted to explore it.

But, I always take your good advice. I did go back and read it to see if I had missed something. If I did, I missed it on the second reading as well.

Anonymous said...

Exterminator -- I actually haven't read your own posting yet, though I intend to. My comments here were purely in response to John Evo's posting.

John -- My aversion to Chomsky stems from my study of ape-language research, a field in which Chomsky occupies the same role as the Discovery Institute does in the field of evolution science.

And if disliking swearing is "priggish", then that's a title I'm happy to claim. :-)

----- Infidel753

The Exterminator said...

OK, since Infidel hasn't read my post yet, I'll address these comments to Evo, only.

Here are a few points you made with which I disagree:

Because of the ancient aspects of taboo language in the brain, when one hears a taboo word, they have no conscious choice available to ignore it. Ones attention is riveted on that word – enjoy it or hate it.

To me, that feels like a power play and I try not to make power plays on people if it isn’t absolutely necessary.

I think both the ancient taboo and the power-play issue are bullshit. I specifically address the power-play issue in my post: It may work for the least educated among us, but it certainly doesn't apply in our circles.

So how about the ancient taboo? Most people would say that the word "fuck" is tied to English only. (I wouldn't, for reasons implied in my post.) Assuming it is (as you do), however, it can't be an ancient taboo, because English isn't old enough to be considered "ancient." So, somewhere relatively recently in the history of the English-speaking members of our species, "fuck" must have become a no-no. The "prohibition" against its use is either because of the literal meaning of the word, or because of something else. If it's because of the literal meaning, that ban has been imposed by an anti-sexuality church. I'd argue, though, that "fuck" is taboo not because of its literal meaning, but because -- again, as I pointed out in my post -- it's both purgative and fun to say. Relgious and civil authorities don't like having a populace that can purge negative feelings or engage in joyous ones without the oversight of an institution (the state and/or the church). Hence: Don't say "fuck."

Here's another quote from you (actually Pinker, in your interpretation -- which I don't dispute): After describing the so-called “rage circuit”, a part of the brains of all mammals, he goes on to explain a hypothesis about cathartic swearing.

Pinker and you lump all "swear"-words together. But I think there's something special about "fuck." I address this, again, in my post; in fact that's the whole point of it.

So I'll accept that you're uncomfortable about swearing in general. But now, can you address "fuck" specifically? If you don't want to do it here, come on over to my place and leave a comment there. But wherever, about "fuck" only.

And by the way, I still think you're priggish, but you're a fucking great friend anyway.

Alejandro said...


Two things jump into my mind. First, I think "taboo" refers to two things-- language and content. I'm using those words to refer to "words we use" and "things we talk about" respectively.

Reading Infidel's first comment, I was instantly reminded of George Carlin who once made the point that taboo subject all share one thing in common: they remind us that we are animals. Think about it. The two biggies? Sex and pooping. Or, more colloquially, fucking and shitting.

On some level, I think have historically considered it taboo to discuss these things in pleasant company regardless of what kind of language you use. To do so was considered "vulgar" or "rude," which really meant "low class." A lady or a gentleman didn't talk about those things.

Then you have to "dirty words" themselves.

I think John is trying to connect the taboo nature of the word with the cathartic effect while at the same time trying to get to the bottom of what's so cathartic about it-- I might guess it has something to do with someone who feels powerless in a situation blowing off some steam with a word that shocks. I feel like I'm getting fucked, so I say "Fuck!"

Another thing that jumps to mind is I wonder if we will ALWAYS have taboo subjects and words, precisely because we have a social need for boundaries they provide and an emotional need to sometimes flagrantly disregard them.

But what the fuck do I know?

Great post.

Anonymous said...

A few years ago Harpers magazine presented an article on invective which was really a good read.

One of the things I learned about invective is that it is a cultural as well as larger societal thing.

I lived in barracks for some years, and the things that one could say and one could not would strike a lot of people as very strange. The "F" word really had no real meaning, actually. It was a utility word which could be a verb, noun, sdjective, or adverb. If I remember correctly, I've even heard it used as a conjunction, but then, the person using it was a true master.

Clemens is said to have had quite a store of invective which he tended to use more than his wife liked. She is said to have spewed a bunch back at him once, and asked what he thought of her saying such things. He thought about it and said, "The NOTES are there, but the MUSIC is wanting."

My wife very seldom uses profanity, but if she does, things are crossways. My youngest son told me that he figured that if he heard his mother used the "F" word he had left running about a minute and a half too late.

It's like one's name. This also seems to be more a male thing.

Homer used the expression (loosly) to "ply swift knees": ie, "run like a striped' ass ape". One hears one's name used daily, but remember the unease when a parent used your proper first name rather than your nickname? Adding a middle name gave a bit more pause, but if one were addressed by all three names it was an annunciation that the boom was about to be lowered and lowered hard. All conveyed with import because of seldom used names/words.

The Exterminator said...

I hope you're not going to reread the end of your comment and feel guilty about it.

Since young folks don't quote Mark Twain anywhere near enough, I thought I'd throw in something he said to a preacher. This one's doubly apropos here, because it's about about cuss words AND religion.

My swearing doesn't mean any more to me than your sermons do to you.

Alejandro said...

A few weeks ago a friend of mine told me I say the word "fuck" a lot more since I became an atheist.

So, no, no guilt involved.

The Exterminator said...

Free mind, free tongue. I think that's a pretty good motto.

Lynet said...

Stermy, how dare you accuse John Evo of priggishness? He's protecting the power of the word 'fuck' to represent defiance of authority. Fucking well use your head!

Personally, I think it's fair ehough to acknowledge the possibility of readers who would rather not read swear words. I myself have readers who would rather not read swear words; I have a friendly connection with L. L. Barkat's little band of thoughtful evangelicals which I would rather like to keep.

The way I see it, what John is saying is that his space works differently to 'No More Hornets'. At NMH, anything goes, and that's great. Over here, the place can have a slightly more polite tone (while still including free argument), and there are good reasons for having spaces like that, too.

The Exterminator said...

Lynet (and Evo):

I think you're correct that different blogs call for and encourage different kinds of language. I'd go even further and say that the owner of each blog has the right to set his or her limits. I think there's an implied limit at Elliptica; that's why you haven't seen me use "fuck" in a comment there. Plus, it just hasn't ever been apropos to the discussion going on. I also notice that you don't make sexual jokes there the way you have here or at my place. So we take cues from one another about language and content.

On the other hand, I did use "fuck" recently here at EM in a context for which I think it was both appropriate and apropos: to show my incredulity at an assertion that was extremely stupid. (You can find the "magic" word in the comment thread of "Atheosphere: What's the Use" if you're interested.)

I do think Evo's claim that he only uses taboo words when he's not "in full control of his emotions," makes him a bit of prig. It shows that, unless he's completely carried away by feelings, he censors his written speech to conform to some societal "standard." I think the standard is nonsense.

However, I will say this. If Evo arbitrarily picked a set of words and asked me to avoid using them in my comments here, I would. That's his prerogative as the owner of the blog.

Plonka said...

If I were to write it here, it would be the first time I've done so in any post on any blog.

That said, I tend to swear quite a bit when I'm speaking generally.

DaVinci said...

I prefer to think of it as a good word, much the same attitude that Frank Zappa has.
We all like to do it, so where's the harm in saying it.
Victorianism is dying.

John Evo said...

OK, OK... I'm priggish. I guess.

I mean, I say fuck all the time (as I think I indicated in my post). I'm simply using it within the company that talks that way.

And I don't refuse to use it in all other situations. But it's more likely to come out in an emotional moment.

I must have used the word a dozen times in this post and the comments, but I'm talking about "fuck". I use it very occasionally on other blogs but, yeah, I guess I monitor myself.

I've never asked anyone not to say "fuck" or any other word on my blog. I have not list of "bad words". If someone uses the word "fuck" or "cunt" or "bitch" or "nigger" or "kike" I won't object in the least UNLESS it's directed at another, in which case I'd probably delete the comment with an explanation.

But I'm unlikely to use any of those words myself, in my writing, even though I have said all of them, and will in the future.

bjkeefe said...

Three things:

First, I myself resist saying "fuck" in certain company, if I don't wish to offend. Generally speaking, however, I think allowing the word to be seen as taboo gives it extra power. If it weren't a banned word on TV, I predict it would be used at a frequency approaching Scarface for about six months, and then it would die away. On a related note, I usually think someone who uses "fuck" excessively is unintelligent. It's probably not wise to equate a limited vocabulary with a generally low intellect, but there it is.

Second, I've been interested to note the relatively recent acceptance of "fuck" as a noun. One time when I was a kid, and I was being picked on by a bully, I blurted out, "Get away from me, you fuck." He told me if I was going to use swear words, I should learn how to swear. Nowadays, "you sick fuck" is common. I have a special fondness for "eat my fuck," because I like nonsense.

Third, Heather Havrilesky has written the definitive defense of "fuck." Highly recommended.

Anonymous said...

I do think Evo's claim that he only uses taboo words when he's not "in full control of his emotions," makes him a bit of prig. It shows that, unless he's completely carried away by feelings, he censors his written speech to conform to some societal "standard." I think the standard is nonsense.

Not every instance of refraining from doing or saying something constitutes contemptible self-censorship. Profanity is felt by many people to be hostile and intimidating; it is often used with the intent of being hostile and intimidating; it weakens whatever point one is trying to make, by making one seem angry and vehement as well as dull and unimaginative (there is a good comment about this by Sarge on Exterminator's original posting). If one is among a crowd which is comfortable with swearing, fine; but aside from that, not using profanity is like not wearing street-gang clothes to a job interview or not chewing with one's motuh open at the dinner table. It's self-interest and respect for other people's sensibilities.

It's true that swearing can bring a sense of release and relief; so does defecation, which we generally don't do in front of other people (maybe that's self-censorship to conform to societal standards too?). Self-expression and effective communication aren't the same thing; in fact, in many cases they're mutually exclusive.

----- Infidel753

Ute said...

The word fuck as a cussing word never made any sense to me. In Germany you don't use it to cuss. Well, some Germans have adopted it, I guess. But only as in the one word sentence "Fuck!!!"

I was raised not to cuss. I don't even say shit or damn.

As mentioned before, fuck doesn't make any sense to me.

"You fucking idiot." Huh??? Idiot maybe, but fucking? Not!
"It's so fucking hot in here." I see how it's hot... but fucking? I just don't get it. And I don't think I ever will.

I try to avoid movies that overuse the word fuck too. It's just no good to me to listen to actors say that word 150 times throughout a movie, when it's just not necessary.

I may be americanized... but not that much I guess. :)

The Exterminator said...


In response to your last comment, I'd like to quote a wise man who posted the following on another blog, in a different -- but I think similar -- context:

What a frightening world these people inhabit. Mere spoken words have magical powers, and you may be putting your soul in peril merely by uttering a series of phonemes without knowing or intending any associated meaning.

The lack of "associated meaning" is discussed in detail at my post referenced by Evo.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

Getting here late.

From the title, I thought this was going to be a little exposition on the advantages of breast and testicle self examinations. Imagine my disappointment. All you people want to do is say "Fuck". What fun is that?

PhillyChief said...

What a fucking bunch of nerdy word nazis you all are, not to mention you're deep analysis of psychological states both prompting the usage and in response to hearing it. Lighten the fuck up already. Geesh

As far as why is a sexual act seen as bad and knee-jerkingly pointing to the damn christians, have you seen the series Rome from HBO (or maybe OZ)? Well there was a scene in Rome where essentially the top mob wanted to make a statement to another faction. They surrounded a guy in the public shitter, dunked him head first into his own shit, then while still face down in that shit he was violently fucked in the ass. THAT's the kind of message I'm willing to bet was the original intent of the word, not "happy intercourse to you".

Anonymous said...

Exterminator --

There's no commonality at all between the two situations. My comment above explains very clearly why.

I don't think any more needs to be said -- I'd just be repeating myself.

----- Infidel753

Unknown said...

I swear when I feel it's appropriate. I like to be conscious of what I'm saying. I don't want to walk up to an elderly lady and be swearing away unless I know she's comfortable with it.

At the same time I hate the softening of a swear word by inserting another, non-offensive word like darn or "f-bomb". If you're going to indicate the word, then say it. If you're worried about who might hear you, then don't use it at all. But if you're going to swear, do it whole-heartedly.

John Evo said...

OG - pretty much my point. Why on earth would I want to say a word that some elderly person is going to automatically find offensive? Or even a younger person (maybe someone I actually like, and care about). Sure their feelings on the subject are irrational, but it doesn't change their hurt. It easy enough to avoid execpt in circumstances when I know I'm offending no one - or maybe offending someone who I think could USE a stiff dose of offense!