Curse words have been a widespread since ancient times. According to Melissa Mohr, a medieval literature expert whose book on the subject was just released by Oxford University Press, such language harks back to Roman times. She makes several points concerning expletives, some with which I agree, and some with which I don’t, mainly because she doesn’t take into consideration people like me.
For instance, she says 0.7% of the words a person uses in the course of a day are swear words. In other words, the average person uses foul language at the same rate at which they use first-person plural pronouns (we, our, ourselves). The typical range, Mohr says, goes from zero to about 3%. Three-percenters are people like Eddie Murphy (or a former brother-in-law of mine on my husband’s side) who swear as readily as they breathe. (I guess she hasn’t ever listened to rap music. At least twenty-five percent of what they say is made up of curse words.) Since most of my friends don’t swear at all, our zero percentages lower the average percentage.
Today’s most popular swear words have been around for thousands of years – since Anglo-Saxon times. That bit of information didn’t surprise me. I taught English literature for many years, and the roots of those words can be found in the writings. (Most of those texts were passed down orally, through scops and gleemen – poets and singers. I include that bit of trivia so that you realize what we have now may not have been the original language. Beowulf, for instance, may have been changed by monks to inject more religious content.)
“Bad” words were commonplace in the Middle Ages, and there were and are two specific types: oaths, such as taking the Lord’s name in vain; and obscene words, which include sexual and racial slurs. People in the Middle Ages had much lower standards of privacy, so they were less likely to have a sense of shame (like guys in a locker room, I suppose). They slept in the same beds and used open privies. Comments on activities which we consider to be private were commonplace.
Ms. Mohr appears to look down her nose at “bourgeois people” who typically swear the least. She says, “This goes back to the Victorian era idea that you get control over your language and your deportment, which indicates that you are a proper, good person and this is a sign of your morality and awareness of social rules,” she explains. “The upper classes have been shown to swear more, however: while ‘social strivers’ mind their tongues, aristocrats have a secure position in society, so they can say whatever they want — and may even make a show of doing so.”
So, if we choose not to curse like sailors (or actors, or gang members), we are ‘social strivers,’ and once we reach that pinnacle of success in society, for which we all strive (of course), we will feel free to let it fly and turn the air blue? She doesn’t allow for the possibility that some of us watch our words because we want to do so. Believe it or not, I actually don’t think a curse word when I hurt myself (which is frequently, because I’m a klutz). I just think, “AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!” Some words, I have never said, not because I’m a saint (I’m not), but because I was taught not to use them. As for the less offensive words, I have slipped and said them occasionally. It doesn’t make me feel better when I do so.
Mohr maintains that swear words “are the best words that you can use to insult people, because they are much better than other words at getting at people’s emotions,” and “Swear words are also the best words to use if you hit your finger with a hammer, because they are cathartic, helping people deal with emotion as well as pain. And studies have shown that they help people bond — like blue-collar workers who use taboo terms to build in-group solidarity against management types.”
I disagree with the lady. I think gutter language is the sign of a poor vocabulary and a lack of imagination. How many words are on the list of “bad words”? I can think of about twenty, some of which are worse than others. That’s evidence of lazy speech in my opinion. I know people use the words as regular speech in many areas of the world, and if I went to those places, I would ignore the language. I don’t make a habit of correcting anyone except my children and my students, so I ignore a good bit here, too. In short, which words people use is up to them. I am responsible only for myself, and I choose not take up my rapidly dwindling brain space with garbage.