By Reva Sherrard
[Editor’s note: This is a column about language. Explicit language. And, really, what’s the purpose of language if not to be explicit … or something like that … -ish? This is fair warning for the easily offended: THIS COLUMN CONTAINS FRANK DISCUSSION AND USE OF PROFANITY. … In the interest of full disclosure, there was some debate about the contents of this column. After a profanity-laden debate amongst staff, we’ve decided to run it as written, though we did censor the subtitle as it could be misconstrued as sensationalistic provocation. In any case, if you’re truly upset by the contents of this article, we suggest you invent a time machine, go back to 1971, and make your case at the Supreme Court before the conclusion of the “Cohen vs California” case. Or just, you know, get on with your life.]
Every tongue has its forbidden words. Some, like the Tetragrammaton (Yahweh when he’s at home), are sacred. Others are decidedly profane. If you’re reading this, chances are that, like me, you were raised to expect a gasp of horror from moral authorities (parents, teachers, adults at large) if you uttered that most satisfying and utilitarian cussword in English — fuck. Perhaps, like me, your upbringing instilled such an aura of evil around this word and its ilk that even as your cooler peers began peppering them into their conversation, you shied from swearing as instinctively as you would from naughty pictures of your grandma.
It was nothing short of a psychological revolution when I discovered what differentiated fuck and shit from “sleep with” and “go to the bathroom,” on the one hand, and from fornicate and defecate on the other. It’s a combination of a basic, though fluctuant cultural squeamishness about the physical facts of life, and a bias against Anglo-Saxon in favor of Latin-derived vocabulary that dates from the Norman Conquest; nothing innately to do with the words themselves. Weighed in the scales of linguistic objectivity, fuck and company are no different from any other words in English.
Or are they? People with aphasia — neurological impairment of the ability to process language, common after a stroke — generally find it easier to produce profanity than other types of speech; even patients who didn’t swear before their stroke may do so fluently after, though normal statements are difficult to utter. Recent research suggests that taboo words are stored and interacted with via the limbic system, the so-called paleomammalian cortex which mediates emotion, memory, and autonomic function in the brain. When a stroke wreaks havoc in the brain’s complex language-processing network, this area is spared. Interestingly, scent — the one sense for which no language possesses vocabulary — is also processed in the limbic brain.
In other words, swearing has less to do with language than with the deep part of us that handles the social and biochemical cues essential to survival; hence the central role of sex and genitalia in profanity worldwide.
So, if cursing doesn’t operate like ordinary language, why use words at all? Why not just let out a yell? The need to communicate our internal states, to be heard and understood, is central to human nature, yet for and because of all our linguistic sophistication we regularly have experiences for which neither a wordless cry nor an eloquent paragraph will do. When you accidentally kick the door-frame and yelp, “Fucking hell!” anyone within earshot immediately knows the essence of your internal state: pain, shock, agitation. Any favored expletive or substitute is as effective in this case as another; the words “fucking” and “hell” themselves have very little to do with what you are currently up to, no more than “fudge” or “Satan’s sweaty nutpurse.” In swearing, you convey to listeners that while still capable of speech — the difference between an oath and a scream — you are in no condition to explain yourself. After a few deep breaths you might call out, “Sorry, I stubbed my toe,” (or, “I need to go to the ER”) and discourse resumes as normal. Our drive as a species to communicate and thereby share our experiences is stronger than all reason, otherwise we would have no urge to cry, swear, shout, or sing except in the presence of other humans. The unbearable pressure of a subjective experience that cannot be expressed verbally, whether a mundane condition hampered by aphasia or a state of intense pain or pleasure, vents itself in cursing.
Another drive that swearing assuages is the need to take action on your own behalf when it’s impossible to do so directly. If you can’t remove the moment’s consternation, you can express in no uncertain terms how you feel about it. Cursing, in the word’s more traditional sense, either tacitly or explicitly invokes supernatural forces to support one’s desires and intentions, from “God damn you” and “By god,” with all its amusing archaic variants — “zounds” (> God’s wounds), “gadzooks” (> God’s hooks, i.e., the nails that fastened Jesus to the cross), “Odd’s bodkins” (> God’s body), etc.
The most imaginative and memorable curses depart the realm of purely visceral taboo-words, while remaining deeply satisfying, to express sentiments such as “A plague on both your houses,” “Burn in hell,” and “May a donkey fuck him and a donkey fuck his wife.” This last is a shining example of Ancient Egyptian cursing from a legal document (the “Adoption Papyrus,” second century B.C.E.) written up by a woman who, in an action as admirable as her command of colorful language, was adopting her slaves as children in order to free them. To protect their status after her death she threatened this fate, usually considered unpleasant, to those who might treat them with disrespect.
So the next time you whack your thumb with a hammer, swear away in the knowledge that you are engaging in an idiosyncratically human activity with the power to relieve some of life’s inevitable pressures. Or, in other words, go fuck yourself.
Reva Sherrard works at Peregrine Book Company, studies Old Norse religion, and is writing a novel.
Tags: Adoption Papyrus, Cohen vs California, cursing, cussing, fuck, gadzooks, limbic brain, limbic system, May a donkey fuck him and a donkey fuck his wife, Myth & Mind, Odd's Bodkins, Reva Sherrard, shit, swearing, Tetragrammaton, zounds