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Profanity

Profanity

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Most media and social science treatments of profanity fail to grasp the significance of its underlying neurological, psychological, and sociocultural functions. The term profanity generally describes forms of offensive or vulgar speech that are scatological, irreligious, or sexual (e.g., shit, hell, and fuck ). The American Heritage Dictionary (2000) definition refers to abusive, vulgar, or irreverent language. The concept of profanity in most cultures also extends to offensive gestures, such as the middle-finger gesture; behaviors, such as pelvic thrusting; and forms of art, for example, sexual content in the motion picture The Last Temptation of Christ or modern artwork such as Piss Christ by Andres Serrano.

The preceding works of art are offensive because they affront religion, which is in line with the original usage of the term profanity. From the fifteenth through the nineteenth century profanity had a more precise meaning, referring specifically to irreligious speech or behavior and not merely vulgarity. Biblical taboos restricted sacrilegious speech, as defined by religious authorities, for example the commandment not to use the Lords name in vain.

The word profane, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (1989), can be traced in writing to 1483. It literally meant outside of the church, secular, not concerned with religion or religious purposes, and by extension not holy, impure or defiled; as a verb it described treating something sacred with abuse, irreverence, or contempt. This definition of profanity is similar to that for blasphemy, which refers to an act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God. Blasphemy is currently understood as a pointed attack on religion and religious figures, as opposed to merely showing irreverence. For example, Salman Rushdies The Satanic Verses (1988) was considered by Muslims to be blasphemous toward Islam because of its insulting references to Muhammad.

The concepts of profanity and blasphemy form an integral part of European law regarding obscenity. British obscenity laws, which formed the foundation of American obscenity law, were adapted by the American colonies in the 1600s. They were predicated on the idea that offensive speech has the power to corrupt and deprave people, especially women and children. Early obscenity decisions in both England and the United States dealt with profanity and blasphemy, that is, speech offensive to religion and religious figures. In the late 1800s there was a shift from religion to sexuality as the basis of obscenity. Around the time of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) the postal service broadened its censorship of irreligious material to include materials of a sexual nature (e.g., photographs or post cards mailed to soldiers). A historical analysis by Stuart Flexner (1976) indicated that the power of profanity to offend declined throughout the nineteenth century, being supplanted by sexual words and phrases in the United States and other English speaking countries. Since the early 1900s, obscenity cases in the United States have dealt exclusively with sexual materials and their effects on adults and children.

Educators regard the use of profanity as a problem of style more than an affront to religion. In most modern cultures profanity is regarded as substandard speech and inappropriate in formal communication, for example at school. The changing acceptability of profanity in U.S. society is mirrored in motion picture language restrictions. In the early 1900s, U.S. film censorship boards were highly influenced by the church, and religious profanities were explicitly forbidden. The 1939 American classic Gone with the Wind made history when Clark Gable uttered one of cinemas most famous lines, Frankly, my dear, I dont give a damn, resulting in a $5,000 fine. Jay (1992) reported how language in film was heavily censored in the United States prior to the evolution of the rating system used by the film industry since 1968, which permits hundreds of profanities and obscenities in a film for adults, and fewer in films for teenagers and young children. Offensive language is restricted in almost all media around the world (the Internet and satellite radio being exceptions in most countries); censorship occurs in television, radio, newspaper, billboard, magazine, and advertising content. Profanity is heard more frequently in media than obscenity, but that trend could change.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has always regulated obscenity on the airwaves, and following the 1978 Supreme Court ruling in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, expanded its scope to include indecent speech, defined as patently offensive references to sexual and excretory functions. Pacifica was based on a complaint by John Douglas, a member of the Planning Board of Morality in Media, about a radio stations afternoon broadcast of George Carlins comedy routine Filthy Words, which featured seven words not allowed on television. In the early 2000s, conservative political action committees in the United States (e.g., Parents Television Council, Morality in Media) pressured the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to ban religious profanity from television and radio. Since 2003, the FCC has vacillated on whether fuck is universally obscene or not, depending on the context. The FCC originally ruled that fuck was not obscene when pop singer Bono uttered the word at the 2003 Golden Globe Awards. The commission reversed itself in 2004, ruling that it was obscene. When ABC broadcast the World War II film Saving Private Ryan in 2005, the FCC allowed the offensive speech because soldiers naturally used profanity and obscenity in the heat of battle.

As profanity came to be seen as less offensive than sexual obscenity, profanity became more common in public places, on television, on radio, and in newspapers. Timothy Jay (1992, 2000) published data indicating that profanities are among the most frequently spoken swear words; they are learned in early childhood and persist into old age. Peoples feelings about profanity often depend on their view of religion. Religious people are less likely to use profanity than non-religious people, and religious people are more offended by profanity in the media than are non-religious people. Some religious people are more offended by profanity than by obscenity; for example, Jay (2005) documented how religious working-class women will frequently use obscenities at work but are reluctant to use profanities. Restrictive attitudes toward profanity have led to complaints about profanity in popular media. Although religion-based complaints are predicated on the notion that children will be harmed by profanity, there is no social science data to indicate that profanities are psychologically harmful to listeners.

It is normal for people to use profanity, but its use depends critically on the social context. Brain damaged patients may have difficulty suppressing profanity. Jay (2000) has demonstrated both the universality of profane speech and behavior and the culturally determined nature of profanity by observing the behavior of Tourettes syndrome patients. Tourettes syndrome (TS) is a motor disorder characterized by uncontrollable movements (e.g., grimacing, head turning, or arm flailing) and vocalizations (e.g., yelling, grunting, or swearing). Uncontrollable obscene gestures and movements (copropraxia) and speech (coprolalia) occur in 25 to 30 percent of Touretters, and tend to feature the most socially inappropriate behaviors in a given culture. What a Touretter produces during a seizure depends on cultural and developmental context. English-speaking Touretters might utter obscenities such as fuck, cunt, and mother-fucker, brandish the middle finger, or act out vulgar behaviors such as simulated masturbation. A young woman with TS in Kuwait is more prone to expose a naked leg, a gesture forbidden in her culture. Japanese and Chinese TS patients are more likely than English speakers to utter insults based on ancestral allusions (e.g., aunt fucker ). Touretters in countries where religion is dominant are more likely to use profanities (e.g., holy mother ) than Touretters from more secular countries. Coprolalia in the form of sign language also occurs among members of the deaf community with TS.

Originally meant to denote an offense toward religion, the term profanity now refers to a broader range of offensive speech and behavior, which is regarded by many people as too coarse for public use. Context-sensitive social science interpretations of profanity support a less restrictive view of profanity.

SEE ALSO Norms

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Flexner, Stuart Berg. 1976. I Hear America Talking: An Illustrated Treasury of American Words and Phrases. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Jay, Timothy B. 1992. Cursing in America: A Psycholinguistic Study of Dirty Language in the Courts, in the Movies, in the Schoolyards, and on the Streets. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Jay, Timothy B. 2000. Why We Curse: A Neuro-Psycho-Social Theory of Speech. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Jay, Timothy B. 2005. American Women: Their Cursing Habits and Religiosity. In Gender and the Language of Religion, ed. Allyson Jule, 6384. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Timothy B. Jay

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SWEARING

SWEARING. A term that refers to both taking an OATH and using language that is regarded as foul, abusive, and profane. When people in a Christian culture swear on the Bible to tell the truth in court, they assume that God will punish anyone who then lies, quite apart from the legal consequences of ‘being forsworn’ (perjury). When people swear something or swear to do something, for example on their honour, they pledge that honour as a security to be forfeited if forsworn. Oaths sworn to a god or God are solemn matters, but over the centuries have passed from being ritual formulas to being exclamations. The negative aspect of oath-swearing (retribution) allows other kinds of negatively charged language to be called oaths, and their exclamatory use to notions from By God! through Hell! and Shit! to You son of a bitch! is striking but not surprising; the last three can be called both oaths and curses, and the activity in general can be called cursing and swearing. The notion of CURSING has undergone a similar development: solemn cursing invokes supernatural retribution on someone or something the curser holds odious. See ABUSE, ANGLO-SAXON, AUSTRALIAN, AUSTRALIAN LANGUAGE, BAD LANGUAGE, BLASPHEMY, DEROGATORY, EUPHEMISM, EXPLETIVE, FOUL LANGUAGE, FOUR-LETTER WORD, INFIX, OBSCENITY, PARTRIDGE, PLAIN ENGLISH, SLANG, SWEARWORD, TABOO, VULGAR, VULGARISM.

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Profanity

PROFANITY

Irreverence towards sacred things; particularly, an irreverent or blasphemous use of the name of God. Vulgar, irreverent, or coarse language.

The use of certain profane or obscene language on the radio or television is a federal offense, but in other situations, profanity might fall within the protection of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.

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profanity

pro·fan·i·ty / prəˈfanətē; prō-/ • n. (pl. -ties) blasphemous or obscene language: an outburst of profanity. ∎  a swear word; an oath. ∎  irreligious or irreverent behavior.

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swearing

swearing, in law: see oath.

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profanity

profanitybanditti, bitty, chitty, city, committee, ditty, gritty, intercity, kitty, nitty-gritty, Pitti, pity, pretty, shitty, slitty, smriti, spitty, titty, vittae, witty •fifty, fifty-fifty, nifty, shifty, swiftie, thrifty •guilty, kiltie, silty •flinty, linty, minty, shinty •ballistae, Christie, Corpus Christi, misty, twisty, wristy •sixty •deity, gaiety (US gayety), laity, simultaneity, spontaneity •contemporaneity, corporeity, femineity, heterogeneity, homogeneity •anxiety, contrariety, dubiety, impiety, impropriety, inebriety, notoriety, piety, satiety, sobriety, ubiety, variety •moiety •acuity, ambiguity, annuity, assiduity, congruity, contiguity, continuity, exiguity, fatuity, fortuity, gratuity, ingenuity, perpetuity, perspicuity, promiscuity, suety, superfluity, tenuity, vacuity •rabbity •improbity, probity •acerbity • witchetty • crotchety •heredity •acidity, acridity, aridity, avidity, cupidity, flaccidity, fluidity, frigidity, humidity, hybridity, insipidity, intrepidity, limpidity, liquidity, lividity, lucidity, morbidity, placidity, putridity, quiddity, rabidity, rancidity, rapidity, rigidity, solidity, stolidity, stupidity, tepidity, timidity, torpidity, torridity, turgidity, validity, vapidity •commodity, oddity •immodesty, modesty •crudity, nudity •fecundity, jocundity, moribundity, profundity, rotundity, rubicundity •absurdity • difficulty • gadgety •majesty • fidgety • rackety •pernickety, rickety •biscuity •banality, duality, fatality, finality, ideality, legality, locality, modality, morality, natality, orality, reality, regality, rurality, tonality, totality, venality, vitality, vocality •fidelity •ability, agility, civility, debility, docility, edibility, facility, fertility, flexility, fragility, futility, gentility, hostility, humility, imbecility, infantility, juvenility, liability, mobility, nihility, nobility, nubility, puerility, senility, servility, stability, sterility, tactility, tranquillity (US tranquility), usability, utility, versatility, viability, virility, volatility •ringlety •equality, frivolity, jollity, polity, quality •credulity, garrulity, sedulity •nullity •amity, calamity •extremity • enmity •anonymity, dimity, equanimity, magnanimity, proximity, pseudonymity, pusillanimity, unanimity •comity •conformity, deformity, enormity, multiformity, uniformity •subcommittee • pepperminty •infirmity •Christianity, humanity, inanity, profanity, sanity, urbanity, vanity •amnesty •lenity, obscenity, serenity •indemnity, solemnity •mundanity • amenity •affinity, asininity, clandestinity, divinity, femininity, infinity, masculinity, salinity, trinity, vicinity, virginity •benignity, dignity, malignity •honesty •community, immunity, importunity, impunity, opportunity, unity •confraternity, eternity, fraternity, maternity, modernity, paternity, taciturnity •serendipity, snippety •uppity •angularity, barbarity, bipolarity, charity, circularity, clarity, complementarity, familiarity, granularity, hilarity, insularity, irregularity, jocularity, linearity, parity, particularity, peculiarity, polarity, popularity, regularity, secularity, similarity, singularity, solidarity, subsidiarity, unitarity, vernacularity, vulgarity •alacrity • sacristy •ambidexterity, asperity, austerity, celerity, dexterity, ferrety, posterity, prosperity, severity, sincerity, temerity, verity •celebrity • integrity • rarity •authority, inferiority, juniority, majority, minority, priority, seniority, sonority, sorority, superiority •mediocrity • sovereignty • salubrity •entirety •futurity, immaturity, impurity, maturity, obscurity, purity, security, surety •touristy •audacity, capacity, fugacity, loquacity, mendacity, opacity, perspicacity, pertinacity, pugnacity, rapacity, sagacity, sequacity, tenacity, veracity, vivacity, voracity •laxity •sparsity, varsity •necessity •complexity, perplexity •density, immensity, propensity, tensity •scarcity • obesity •felicity, toxicity •fixity, prolixity •benedicite, nicety •anfractuosity, animosity, atrocity, bellicosity, curiosity, fabulosity, ferocity, generosity, grandiosity, impecuniosity, impetuosity, jocosity, luminosity, monstrosity, nebulosity, pomposity, ponderosity, porosity, preciosity, precocity, reciprocity, religiosity, scrupulosity, sinuosity, sumptuosity, velocity, verbosity, virtuosity, viscosity •paucity • falsity • caducity • russety •adversity, biodiversity, diversity, perversity, university •sacrosanctity, sanctity •chastity •entity, identity •quantity • certainty •cavity, concavity, depravity, gravity •travesty • suavity •brevity, levity, longevity •velvety • naivety •activity, nativity •equity •antiquity, iniquity, obliquity, ubiquity •propinquity

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