Monday, June 9, 2014

Profanity Is Bullshit


Content warning: This article uses not only words like fuck and shit but also racial slurs. In hindsight, I could have explained better the difference between the two and why I chose to lump them together.

Assuming your browser is displaying images correctly, you should see two audio waveforms above, which are recordings of my voice. One of them is me saying "book", an ordinary word that represents an ordinary object. The other is "fuck", an EVIL word that brings misfortune to whomever hears it. Also known as a curse, a cuss, a swear- collectively, profanity. There are so many words for bad words. We all know that words like fuck make us angrier, and dumber, and must be kept away from children lest it damage their fragile psyches. We don't think about why this is, we just know. Let's think about it: What's the difference between book and fuck? They're both four-letter words. They sound pretty similar too. In a busy crowd you might mix them up. Can you tell which is which just by the waveform? The difference in sound doesn't have any inherent meaning, any more than we can intuitively gather the meaning of a bird tweet. If you listen to a foreign language, you can't tell which words are the profane ones.

This one is definitely a word.
The only meaning to find in a combination of sound is what's defined by language. We choose to agree on definitions because doing so has proven extremely useful, and convenient for those who know them. Then we compile lists of these definitions so that everyone has access to the same information, but where in the dictionary does it explain why one word is a "good" word and another is a "bad" one? Granted, you may find descriptors such as vulgar, profane, or maybe just slang, but all that these labels accomplish is filing some words into a category which itself is not clearly defined. Again, why is "fuck" in that category while "book" is not? The only way to understand this seemingly arbitrary grouping is to look at the meanings of the words in it.

ASS: This has three definitions. One is a synonym for a donkey and is considered the acceptable usage. Another is a synonym for a person's anus (or that of any animal) and this one is not okay, even though "butt" has the same meaning. However, "butt" cannot refer to a donkey- aha! A clue. Humans don't want to be compared to other animals. The last definition is a generally mean and possibly embarrassing person; "jerk" would also be sufficient.

"Hole" is not vulgar by itself, so the word asshole is just a more extreme version of the word ass.
BITCH: Another one with multiple definitions. You'll see that this is a recurring theme, but not a steadfast rule. One definition is a dog, specifically a female one. Another animal! It's too early to say for sure, but this may be a pattern. When referring to a human, the definition depends on the gender of the person being described. If male, this person is weak, overly sensitive, and may complain a lot. If female, the person is generally mean, but not embarrassing as an ass would be.

BONER: Whoops, no animal this time. It might belong to an animal, but is generally used to refer to a human's erect penis. Unfortunately, with "bitch" we've already ruled out the possibility of body parts as the common thread. Maybe it's something to do with humans deviating from their usual behavior, if we grant that flaccid is the default state.

CHINC or CHINK: A person from east Asia, especially China. Once again the pattern is broken. No animal, no body part, no negative traits. I'm not sure why a Chinese person would be offended by the idea that they are Chinese.

Go home red ink cartridge, you're drunk.
COCK: We're back on track! A male chicken this time, so "bitch" must not be a sexist thing. The vulgar version: A penis. Not necessarily erect; any penis. So much for that high-minded "deviation" hypothesis.
COOCH or COOCHIE: Female genitalia. So far all the body parts are in the crotch area.

COON: A dark-skinned person.
CRACKER: A light-skinned person.
So the best skin tone is a neutral gray?

CUM / JIZZ / SPLOOGE: Sexual fluids- semen or natural female lubrication. Now a pattern is starting to show itself. The body parts are all sex-related (technically the ass is not for sex but it can be used that way).

CUNT / PUSSY / TWAT: A vagina. Yup, sex must be one of the criteria.
DICK / PRICK: A penis. It's nice to see that we're equal opportunity.

DOUCHEBAG: An accessory to a hygiene product- one that is used upon a sexual organ- or another type of mean person. Douching is actually bad for your health, just FYI.

DYKE: A homosexual person, specifically female. Not a body part this time, but still describes somewhat how a person prefers their sex.
FAGGOT: A more general term for homosexuals.

FUCK: Wait, I thought there were only supposed to be thirteen of these.

What a faggot.
GUIDO: A person from Italy.

HOE: A gardening tool or a prostitute.

KIKE: A Jewish person.
KRAUT: A person from Germany.
NIGGER: A person from Africa. Not to be confused with "nigga", an exclusionary version of "friend".

PISS: Another word for urine and urination.
SHIT: Another word for feces and defecation.

SPICK: A hispanic person.

TIT: A woman's breast.

WHORE: A person who has a lot of sex, possibly in exchange for money.

Pictured above: A pair of great tits.
Based on these patterns, it seems that there are multiple criteria and only one is required for inclusion. The main theme is sex, a subject that generates far more happiness than misery, and is absolutely imperative to the survival of our species. The lesser used type of profanity is referring to a person by their ethnicity or nationality, which can easily divide people. However, many people take pride in their national origin and consider it important to their identity.

At first glance it would seem that piss and shit don't belong, however piss can come from a sexual organ and the place where shit comes from is also often used sexually. Tits are completely outside the crotch area, however the image of female breasts is so sexualized that they are almost considered a sexual organ. The only real outlier is bitch, although it can sometimes refer to a person who is sexually subservient.

If there is a conclusion to draw here, it is that there is really nothing bad about "bad words" and we should use them just as much as any other. Marking any portion of a language as off-limits is a limit imposed on our ability to communicate, especially when the words in question have such varied and nuanced definitions. Such nuance is the basis of cleverness and poetry. Who can say that Shakespeare knew language better than David Mamet, or the Beatles better than Tenacious D? If language is beautiful, then profanity is beautiful too. You fuckers.

Now go forth and curse!

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