Sunday, August 18, 2013


I was reading an article on just why it's so bad to use profanity in the workplace, when something occurred to me.

If your boss came into your office, slapped a report down on your desk, and demanded to know: "What the sex is this feces?!" would we consider that shockingly vulgar, disrespectful and ignorant? Or just a little strange and off-putting? Or perhaps humorous? Our rules against "profanity" are just that, rules, and in the grand scheme of things, they're pretty arbitrary. Most words that we term "foul language" have synonyms of varying exactness, in meaning and in usage, that are considered much more acceptable in "polite company," as long as the topic itself is open to discussion. They, mostly, just have the advantage of not having been considered inappropriate by the Puritans.

I find it interesting that while profanity is often termed as "swearing" or "cursing," there's nothing socially inappropriate about swearing to something, even if one invokes "the Lord's name" to do so, and the one term of supposed vulgarity that one might actually use to curse someone is considered so mild that it's often dropped from the list of "bad words" entirely. (And this leaves aside the fact that sincerely attempting to curse someone tends to earn you a label of hopelessly deluded, rather than inappropriately belittling or verbally escalating the situation.)

We're shocked by profanity mostly because we're taught to be shocked by profanity, and we've decided that this particular social construct is so important that people who violate it (in certain circumstances, anyway) can't be trusted to abide by other aspects of the social compact. As opposed to people who, say, embezzle. Of course, society can settle on whatever rules it chooses, regardless of how random they may come across as. If the inability to avoid certain words, either as interjections, emphasis or expressions of emotionality, is considered as accurate indicator of a lack of character (or, perhaps more accurately, appropriate inhibition) than the inability to refrain from taking what belongs to another, so be it. Like racial slurs, these words are not inherently injurious. (The belief that words can cause real and physical harm is also considered hopelessly deluded by most.) No one bursts into flame upon hearing them. We've simply granted them an inordinate amount of power because of the often spurious assumptions that we've been conditioned to make about anyone who says them.

Of course, there's nothing wrong, in and of itself, with enforcing a language taboo, no matter how arbitrary it may be. But it's worth keeping in mind that it's a social creation, and a fairly trivial one at that.

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