I’ve often been told that I have a potty mouth, and I suppose to some degree I do. I tend to use words in relation to how I feel about a situation, and the more I dislike a situation, the “rougher” my language. I also tend to use language that will help me “fit in” with the group I’m hanging around with at the time (unless I dislike the situation or find the situation intolerable, and then the language may deteriorate). Unfortunately, some people have told me that I should be more discreet, more professional, more cultured, more expansive/expressive and less “colorful” in my word choices (after all, I’m a writer).
I tend to think that all language is colorful if used in a colorful way, and that any word or combination of words can be used as profanity or cursing. Cursing and profanity are a form of language that has been used around the world for ages. People use it when angry, frustrated, or simply trying to make point about something. In fact, profanity and cursing have been around so long that the concept is just accepted as being part of each and every culture and society; the only thing that ever seems to change regarding profanity and cursing are the words designated as being profane.
But by concentrating on the words, most people miss the point. What makes cursing and profanity special isn’t just the words that are used, it’s also the speaker’s intentions and emotions, as well as the power given to the words by society and the individual cultures.
Profanity is a combination of the words that have been empowered by society as being “bad” along with the intention and emotions of the speaker. Put all of these together with the reaction of the listeners and you have a profane moment. But what if I used words that weren’t given the label of being “bad” or “nasty”? For instance, if I called someone a “Blue-nosed, two-toed stunted pixie” using the same emphasis (tone, intentions, and emotions) as if I had called them a “F***ing bone-headed piece of sh**”, and most people would probably still be upset. Perhaps not as much, since the first phrase isn’t empowered with the designation of being “bad”, “profane”, and “rude”; however, the tone and emotions would still engender a reaction of anger and disgust, if of a slightly less intense nature, just as the second phrase would.
Certain societies, countries, and cultures have decided what words and phrases are profane and what aren’t, and most of us who then use those words or phrases do so because we know (and expect) a particular reaction. But the use of profanity isn’t just about words or phrases, it’s about tone and emotions. If we really want to upset someone, we use the words we know they are opposed to hearing, and we use them in a tone that says hate, anger, and disrespect. If we only wish to mildly annoy them, then we use softer versions of the words and (perhaps) we soften our tone and our emotions. But the stronger our emotional output, the bigger the reaction you will normally get, and for most people who swear or curse at someone else, that’s the whole point—they want to see an emotional reaction.
However, the more that profanity creeps into the everyday language—through speech, books, music, movies, and TV, the less shocking the words and phrases become. Pretty soon one- and two-year-olds are repeating the phrases and people are laughing at how cute it is, rather than rushing to wash the child’s mouth out with soap. When that happens, the words lose their power. They no longer shock or scare people and new words need to be empowered.
What will those words be? Who knows. But trust me, in another decade or two, the words that we consider profane and in bad taste today will be considered everyday language. No one will show any reaction to their use, and most of us who remember when they were considered “bad words” will wonder why the words had such power, why anyone ever thought them wicked.
As for the new words and phrases that will have replaced them…well, for all I know, in another two decades, calling someone a two-toed stunted pixie may be considered shocking and profane.