Oooohhhh! You Said a Bad Word!

by Tina Blue
September 18, 2005

          In an 1993 article ("Defining Deviancy Down") about the apparently declining crime rate, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan suggested that, as Emile Durkheim had claimed in Rules of Sociological Method (1895), there is a limit to the amount of deviant behavior any community can "afford to recognize" (the "Durkheim Constant"). A significant increase in the amount of deviancy forces a community to adjust its standards, so that conduct once considered deviant becomes acceptable. When a community fails to police itself and enforce its standards of behavior, those standards continually devolve in order to normalize more and more extreme deviancy.

          Now, Moynihan's article was concerned with society's definition of crime, but the principle he discusses is relevant to other forms of socially defined behavior, including good manners and good taste. This includes the definition of acceptable language. 

          During most of the 20th century, the norms that governed polite behavior and publicly acceptable behavior in the United States were shaped by Victorian sensibilities, which held sway in "polite" (more precisely, bourgeois) society in the US just as they did in England.  They were particularly concerned with controlling public behavior and expression that might undermine their cult of domesticity.  During the 19th century, bourgeois society elevated the role of the woman to that of domestic goddess, and the home became virtually a temple of decency and freedom from the stain of the public square.  Words and behaviors that were considered especially insulting to the purity of the little woman were those that referenced sex and scatology, and those were among the ones that continued to be most offensive in the 20th century. George Carlin riffed on this idea in his famous comic routine about the seven dirty words that could never be used on television Here is his list: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits.

          Words like hell and damn were also very offensive during this period, because they were blasphemous, and back then blasphemy was considered more deviant than it is today. Thus, the main areas of language that were strictly censored were those involving sex, elimination, and blasphemy.

          When I was a child in the 1950s, "decent" men still did not curse in front of women or children, and women who had any concern for being considered respectable did not curse at all (or if they did, they made certain that no one witnessed their transgression). Children who used "bad words" were punished, often by having their mouths washed out with soap, not just at home, but even in school! A common childhood threat was, "I'm going to tell Mommy you said a bad word," so even children were fairly careful about using curse words in front of their peers, since some of their age mates might be willing to inform on them if they heard them use such language. One of the ways the most rebellious youngsters signaled their lack of concern for rules was to let drop a curse word (usually just  hell or damn).

          The youth culture of the 1960s accelerated the process of "defining deviancy downward," not only in language but also in behavior. The so-called sexual revolution, made possible by the pill, undermined the home, the domain of the idealized woman, as a place protected from the vulgarities of the public sphere. Furthermore, the home had been invaded by the public square and the marketplace in the form of television and radio. Because television and radio entered the home, standards of acceptable language and behavior concerning sex, elimination, and blasphemy that had been enforced by society were initially applied to television and radio broadcasts: remember when married couples could not be shown sleeping in the same bed?

          But by the end of the 1960s, the "let it all hang out" philosophy of the drug and sex  influenced youth culture had gone very far toward redefining what was acceptable in middle class society. After all, the baby boomer kids who were leading the youth culture "revolution" were the rather spoiled children of the middle class. When the censors finally decided to allow the word penis to be uttered on air, the cast of Saturday Night Live said penis in virtually every sentence, often more than once, for an entire skit. A similar joke has been used by the joyously scatological and profane animated comic series South Park, in which a counter in the lower corner of the screen was used to mark the number of times the word shit was used.

          These same baby boomers, when they had children of their own, were decidedly more lenient about policing their own kids' behavior and language, so that children  began to use vulgar words at a much younger age without being punished--and in fact, often to the great amusement of the adults around them.

          As parents became less concerned with protecting the "sacred" ground of the home from the intrusions of vulgar language and behavior from outside the home, television and radio exposed children to increasing amounts of vulgar language and behavior. Meanwhile, economic and social changes had led to an influx of mothers into the workforce, which meant that more and more children were spending more and more time watching TV and listening to the radio--without much adult supervision. Even cable television, which can show things that are still banned on broadcast TV, is now frequently watched by children, with little or no adult control over the content of the programs they watch. Nowadays, even movies intended primarily for family audiences (those rated PG) now include words like
or butthead that once would have been considered too vulgar to be appropriate for children. Another example is professional wrestling, a decidedly vulgar sideshow that now presents language and scenarios that would have been considered shocking even 25 years ago. It now is widely seen on broadcast TV and has become popular with gradeschool-aged children. Products with vulgar language and images (e.g., T-shirts, posters, and other items with a picture of a popular wrestler flipping the bird) are marketed to young children, and parents actually buy them and allow their children to wear and display them.

          We now have a public sphere where Vice-President Cheney told Senator Patrick Leahy to go fuck himself--on the Senate floor, no less!

          But even as language referencing sex, elimination, and blasphemy, the main taboos of the 19th and 20th centuries, has become pervasive and acceptable in many (perhaps even most) informal situations, though there are usually still some restrictions in more formal situations, other kinds of language have become taboo in polite society. For example, the N-word, though it can be used by African-Americans under certain well-defined conditions without raising an eyebrow, provokes genuine revulsion when used by others under almost any circumstances. Similarly, words that insult those with handicaps (in fact, to some degree even the word
) have become taboo in the public sphere and in polite society.

          Our society's emphasis on individual rights and the right to free, untrammeled individual expression is one factor that has made words that were once considered outrageous seem much more acceptable. That same concern for the rights of the individual has undoubtedly also been part of the reason why words that insult people on the basis of their unchangeable characteristics, like race, ethnicity, or physical handicaps, have become taboo.

          The language that is considered acceptable or taboo in the public sphere and in polite society reflects a society's primary values. Widespread acceptance of language once considered vulgar, combined with the simultaneous roping off of other sorts of language as taboo, implies that the areas of social concern have shifted.

          During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, scatological and sexual language was not as taboo in the Anglo-Saxon world as it was during the 19th and 20th centuries. Both Chaucer and Shakespeare sprinkled words like "cunt" and "piss" throughout their work, which was enjoyed in the court as well as by the public at large. A story in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales describes a trick played on an amorous clerk. A beautiful young married woman presents her bottom to the young man who has come to her window in the dark to pester her for a kiss. When he kisses her, thinking he is kissing her on her lips, he is shocked at the hair surrounding her anus. Here is the relevant passage from "The Millers Tale" :
                                        .  .  .
          "Go from the window, Jack-a-napes," she said,
          "For, s'help me God, it is not 'come kiss me.'
          I love another, or to blame I'd be,
          Better than you, by Jesus, Absalom!
          Go on your way, or I'll stone you therefrom,
          And let me sleep, the fiends take you away!"
          "Alas," quoth Absalom, "and welaway!
          That true love ever was so ill beset!
          But kiss me, since you'll do no more, my pet,
          For Jesus' love and for the love of me."
          "And will you go, then, on your way?" asked she,
          "Yes truly, darling," said this Absalom.
          "Then make you ready," said she, "and I'll come!"
          And unto Nicholas said she, low and still:
          "Be silent now, and you shall laugh your fill."
          This Absalom plumped down upon his knees,
          And said: "I am a lord in all degrees;
          For after this there may be better still
          Darling, my sweetest bird, I wait your will."
          The window she unbarred, and that in haste.
          "Have done," said she, "come on, and do it fast,
          Before we're seen by any neighbour's eye."
          This Absalom did wipe his mouth all dry;
          Dark was the night as pitch, aye dark as coal,
          And through the window she put out her hole.
          And Absalom no better felt nor worse,
          But with his mouth he kissed her naked arse
          Right greedily, before he knew of this.
          Aback he leapt- it seemed somehow amiss,
          For well he knew a woman has no beard;
          He'd felt a thing all rough and longish haired,
          And said, "Oh fie, alas! What did I do?"
          "Teehee!" she laughed, and clapped the, window to. . . .

Now, wouldn't a scene like that, if broadcast on TV or radio, get the FCC's panties in a twist these days?

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