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?