Profanity: A Lost Art


EVERY sympathetic reader of history cultivates sooner or later a mild sensation of resentment against Fate, for that he has not been permitted to live at sometime other than this prosy present and take active part in the romantic events that the past has seen. Or, at least, every reader of history cultivates a set of, what might be called, retrospective ambitions. He makes mental note of a list of historical events of which he would very much like to have been an eye-witness.

What an experience it must have been to watch that royal wrestling match upon the Field of the Cloth of Gold, where bluff King Hal had his high-born shoulder-blades rubbed in the dust; or to be present behind the arras while good Queen Bess berated a luckless bishop; or to stand upon a headland of Southern England on that bright July afternoon and watch the Armada creep up the Channel in a great broad crescent; or to be a rower in the barge which brought Thomas More back to the Tower, and see poor Margaret Roper meet him upon the water-steps and throw herself into his arms, so that the weeping Beef-eaters at last had to unlock her clinging fingers and lead her gently away. A man might well barter a whole life of humdrum existence for one such half hour.

For my part, I confess that my favorite retrospective ambition is, by comparison, a very modest one. I am all the more resentful against Fate that it must perforce be denied me. I should like to have been attendant in some very humble capacity, say, as an equerry, about the person of Henry of Navarre so that I might have heard him swear. They say he knew how to swear, even better than good Queen Bess herself. His favorite oath, we are told, was ‘Ventre Saint Gris.’ I try to imagine to myself just how he might have uttered it; the deliberate articulation of the syllables; the ominous snapping of the cacuminals; the venomous hissing of the sibilants; the low growl of the guttural; the whole touched off by a curl of the bearded lips, and a nasal snarl that lifted the performance to the levels of true art, and left upon the mind of the listener a sense of entire adequacy. You doubtless felt, when he got through, that something had happened sufficiently weighty to rectify the ill-balanced values of the situation, and to restore that spiritual poise which is the normal condition of the soul.

For whatever may be its history as a practice, the true psychological function of profanity is just this: to offer to the perturbed spirit an outlet for the energy which his provocation, whatever it may be, has aroused. The natural outlet for the energy thus provoked would, of course, be some act of retaliatory violence.

The Duke of Albany, at one time Regent of Scotland, when sufficiently provoked, was wont to tear his bonnet from his head and dash it into the fire. And one day, a day which must have been full of provocations for him, he incinerated as many as twelve bonnets, to the boundless satisfaction, no doubt, of the ducal haberdasher. The action relieved him in a very real sense, by furnishing an outlet for the energy which was suddenly aroused in him by the provocation.

It is just that sensation of relief which the spirit seeks in the use of profanity. In fact, an oath is merely the cheap substitute for a deed. And when one takes account of the increasing tyranny of circumstance by which our modern lives are oppressed, and of their correspondingly decreasing opportunities for free and untrammeled action, one is bound to conclude that profanity, the substitute for action, is destined to assume a function of growing importance in our civilization.

We are to so great an extent the mere cogs and levers, the mere articulations in a great social mechanism, and our individual activities are so circumscribed by the social relationships in whose clutches we are held, that, truly, the only recourse remaining to us is to ‘ take it out in profanity.’ This doleful theory is corroborated by the implication lurking in Judge Hoar’s words, when he drew that classic distinction between profanity and mere vulgar swearing: ‘Swearing,’ said he, ‘is the unnecessary use of profane language.’

Understood, then, as a substitute for actions which would be nowadays either unlawful or impossible, profanity assumes at once a certain dignity of its own, as being possessed of a psychological importance. One would seem to be justified in speaking of it as an art. The question at once arises, ‘Wherein consists the Art of Profanity?’ and the answer is obvious: the Art of Profanity consists in that choice of expletives and objurgations which, to a small extent by their meaning, but principally by their phonetic resonance and impact, shall offer the perturbed spirit the most satisfactory substitute possible for the natural action in whose place they stand.

It has been observed that profane words and phrases are for the most part inept and without meaning. It is quite allowable that they should be meaningless; unless one really wishes to curse, which is a wholly different matter. But if one seeks merely to ‘ease his mind’ a meaningful oath is quite unnecessary. All one needs is a good big mouthful of crackling consonants. For it is in its phonetic character that your true oath discharges its proper function. Certain consonants carry more than others the suggestion of something done, or destroyed. Certain other consonants express with peculiar aptness other moods and desires of the heart. The Art of Profanity consists in selecting your oaths with a view to the suggestiveness of their phonetic character; and employing those which most truly suggest the mood of your heart.

How well this is illustrated by a comparison of national oaths, as suggesting by their phonetic peculiarities the different national traits. The straightforward, out-spoken, brute anger of the Anglo-Saxon finds its truest satisfaction in the detonative lingual and the booming mute of our poor old overworked ‘damn.’ The more crafty hatred, and the more disguised passion of the Latin races finds its apter expression in the purring aspirants and malignant sibilants of their hackneyed ‘sacrés’ and ‘carrambas.’ While the deliberate, unhurried, deep-seated vindictiveness of the Orient is unmistakably betrayed in such polysyllabic maledictions as that one which so delighted the poetic soul of Thomas Huxley: ‘May the jackals howl on his grandmother’s grave.’

However that may be, there is an inordinate banality in our modern use of profane language. We have grown sadly negligent of the canons of its art. One or two stereotyped oaths we have, and we use them at all times, and for all manner of occasions. There hangs about them a distressing monotony. Like Ecclesiastes, ‘I have no pleasure in them.’ They offend, not because they are vulgar or reprehensible, though doubtless they are both of these things, but because in their choice there is no imagination displayed, and in their construction no ingenuity.

It is not my province, still less my purpose, to discuss the matter of profanity in its moral bearings. That is something which each person must decide for himself. I cheerfully admit, however, that some oaths are magnificent. Everybody loves Farragut for ‘damning the torpedoes.’ And it makes my blood tingle whenever I call to mind that wholly unprintable monosyllable with which the French captain at Waterloo replied to the English officer who called upon him to surrender.

My sole contention is that profanity is like everything else; if it is to be employed at all, it is worth being employed artistically. So I hope to live to see the day when the Art of Profanity will be restored, the paucity of its vocabulary relieved, and its terms used, by such as feel called upon to use them at all, with a truer taste and a more poetic insight.