We think of profanity as a collection of what we call words. But curses are distinctly odd as words go. Often, they don’t exactly mean anything, or even make sense as grammar. In What the hell is that?, what exactly does hell mean, and is it really a noun? Also, why does a word exist if we aren’t supposed to utter it? Or if certain words are profane, why do so many of us use them all the time?
Babe Ruth’s parents had a rocky marriage. Mr. Ruth ran a bar. Apparently, the bartender and Mrs. Ruth had eyes for each other and did something about it. Mr. Ruth knew and got a lawyer to have the bartender sign an affidavit. The document survives, and reads:
I the under sign fucked Mrs Geo. H, Ruth March 12 1906 on her dinging room floor whitch She ask me to do
Despite the fact that Babe Ruth was neither the miscreant nor the cuckold involved, that piece of paper might well intrigue fans as much as anything that happened to the man before he broke baseball’s home-run record in 1920. Why?
A friend of mine’s mother had a certain fondness for “blue” language, and as her children became teenagers, she began cursing rather freely in their presence. On a Christmas Day when everything seemed to be going wrong and she was complaining about it, her daughter said, “Mom, I thought on Christmas everybody was supposed to be jolly!” The mother shot back, “Oh, jolly shit!” My friend was still laughing at that years later, when she shared the story with me, and I cherish the memory of that episode long after it happened, even though I wasn’t there. Why?
In the 1970s, George Carlin delivered his famous routine about the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Those words: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. That routine is fondly remembered almost 50 years later, while many of us would be hard-pressed to remember anything else Carlin said. Why?
The Babe Ruth bartender tale entices because it reveals people in a post-Victorian era, when public mores were so much starchier, using a word that we, even today, think of as distinctly dirty. Perhaps nothing can make long-gone people seem realer to us than evidence that they used words like fuck. Profanity channels our essence.
“Oh, jolly shit!” is funny first in that a woman was saying something with such a smutty feel in front of her kids, but also in that it shows how our urge to curse often bypasses even our fundamental instinct to make sense. How can shit be jolly? And if that wasn’t what she meant, then what exactly did “Oh, jolly shit!” mean? And if the answer is nothing, then why do we say such things? What the fuck is that? is subject to similar questions. What part of speech, exactly, is fuck in that sentence? Profanity channels our essence without always making logical sense.
And Carlin’s routine resonates in pointing up how arbitrary the power of curse words seems when we consider that they are, ultimately, only words. Carlin stood there, coolly rattling them off in a way that no comedian could have on a commercially released album 10 years before, and the sky did not fall. Profanity channels our essence without always making logical sense, leaving us quaking at the utterance of what are, in the end, just some words.
But clearly these aren’t “just words” like names of fruits or animals at the zoo. When you yell “Damn!” or “Fuck!,” you are not simply uttering a word. Curses are verbal ejaculations, more squawks than labels. A word is presented; a curse is squirted. This is part of why curses can be so utterly disconnected from their technical meanings. In saying “Damn!” we are not cursing in the direction of anything as if “damning” it; “Fuck!” we say when stubbing our toe, certainly not meaning “Sexual congress!” Curses are yelps clad in the guise of words, like those little chocolate bottles filled with booze. To approach these with thoughts of Godiva and Russell Stover is to miss their point, which is what’s sloshing around inside them.
The point, then, the essence, is the squawking sense of offense, our coping with a blow via the visceral and immediate gesture of swatting back to cause a compensatory offense. You level this revenge by saying something you have been told that you should not, by breaking a rule—that is, by doing something taboo. Herein lies profanity’s punch. As Carlin deftly got it across, “These words have no power. We give them this power by refusing to be free and easy with them. We give them great power over us. They really, in themselves, have no power.” In themselves, not—but curse words are ones that, while maintaining the same outward form, long ago ceased being themselves, having been vested with the power of transgression.
In medieval Bristol, one casually referred to a glade called Fuckinggrove, while up in Chester, one could proudly sport a name like Roger Fuckbythenavel. Only later did fuck become a word so dirty that generations of lexicographers pretended that it didn’t exist. And just as a word can attain the power of profane status, it can lose it. In Carlin’s list, for example, I am pretty sure I have never in my lifetime (which began in 1965) heard anyone called a cocksucker, and I have certainly never leveled the term. It is largely an archaism now: In the 1960s and ’70s, the trailblazing Representative Bella Abzug was fond of it as a general term for persons she disliked, but it seems to have faded away. A modern equivalent to Abzug, such as Representative Jerry Nadler, likely prefers asshole, which settled in as a replacement term of art in the late ’60s.
More broadly, while the sacred status of most of the words Carlin mentioned has weakened considerably, new words have arisen that occupy the same place in the culture. Aunt Ruth might have walked out of the room rather than listen to Carlin's disquisition when her nephew Craig played it on his record player. She seems so old-fashioned today, but how many of us would be up for watching a hot new comedian on Netflix gabbing cockily about how we need to get over nigger and faggot?
Carlin’s case that these words “really in themselves have no power” would seem somewhat academic, missing that they wield modern America’s strongest taboo, the slander of groups. Both words stopped being “themselves” long ago.
Profanities will always intrigue us, with their distinctive status and flavor amid the “real” words that make up our language. They seem to be not real words, and yet also realer than words, and have transformed along with our taboos over time. Specifically, profanity has known three main eras—when the worst you could say was about religion, when the worst you could say was about the body, and when the worst you could say was about groups of people. The accumulation of those taboos is why some words harbor such sting.
Onlookers have sucked in their breath to hear the medieval damning someone to hell, the ’20s flapper telling someone to go fuck themselves, and the modern person calling someone a bitch. In the future, some new word reflecting some new taboo will cause our descendants to do the same.
This article has been excerpted from McWhorter’s recent book, Nine Nasty Words.