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 Lord’s 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 Rushdie’s 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 cinema’s most famous lines, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t 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 station’s afternoon broadcast of George Carlin’s 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. People’s 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 Tourette’s syndrome patients. Tourette’s 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
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, 63–84. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Timothy B. Jay
Profanity is the irreverent use of names, or irreverent reference to attributes or qualities of God or of holy persons or things held in esteem because of their relationship to God. Its essential relationship with the holy is gathered from the derivation of the word (from the Latin pro and fanum ), according to which it indicates a quality of something outside the temple, i.e., unholy. Hence, if careless expressions have no connection with the holy, or if an original connection with the holy has been lost to sight in popular usage, they are not properly profane, but should rather be classified, if they are offensive to convention or good taste, as vulgar (see speech, indecent and vulgar). Such, for example, would be expressions like "oh hell," or "damn it."
However, even though profanity is properly thus connected with the holy, it is not to be confused with blasphemy, understood as the utterance of contemptuous speech against God. Intent must be considered in distinguishing particular instances of blasphemy and profanity. If one wishes to dishonor God by his words, an expression that would in other circumstances be merely profane becomes blasphemous and gravely sinful. However, as it is generally understood, profanity involves no positive intent to show contempt for holy things. Rather, it does them less honor than is their due by careless, or too frequent, or inappropriate reference to them. There can be moral fault in this, but it is not serious enough to amount to mortal sin. Sometimes, indeed, there may be no sin at all, as when profane statements are simply ways by which the illiterate unthinkingly try to give emphasis to their statements, or when the expressions used have, through widespread social usage been more or less denatured and have lost their original sacred connotation. Profanity, however, always carries with it the danger of giving disedification or scandal, especially to the young.
Some use of profanity in literature can be fully justified, as when such language is put in the mouths of the characters for the purpose of indicating that such is the type of character being portrayed. However, an excessive use of this device might indicate a certain moral insensitivity or a penchant toward vulgarity or culpable irreverence.
Bibliography: h. noldin, Summa theologiae moralis, rev. a. schmitt and g. heinzel, 3 v. (Innsbruck 1961–62) 2:178–181. h. davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology, rev. and enl. ed. by l. w. geddes (New York 1958) v. 2.
[p. k. meagher]
Judaism has always stressed the importance of the spoken word and hence cleanliness in speech was inculcated in addition to strict prohibition of certain forms of speech such as lying, slander, calumny, or insults. Not only was outright indecent speech to be avoided, but even gross expression was to be shunned. According to the Talmud the Torah uses eight additional letters rather than utter a graceless expression in order to illustrate this principle, for it is written "and of the beasts that are not clean" (Gen. 7:2), instead of "unclean" (Pes. 3a). Likewise, the single word "unclean" would have saved nine letters in the Hebrew text in the verse, "If there be among you any man that is not clean by reason of that which chanceth by night" (Deut. 23:11; Pes. 3a). The Talmud relates that two disciples sat before Rav. One said: "This discussion has made us as tired as an exhausted swine"; the other said: "This discussion had made us as tired as an exhausted kid." Rav would not speak to the former. Similarly, there were three priests; one said, I received as much as a bean of the shewbread: the second said, I received as much as an olive; while the third said, I received as much as a lizard's tail. They investigated the third priest and found that his genealogy was impure and that he was unfit to serve in the Temple (Pes. 3b).
The Talmud considered obscene speech a grievous sin. Many calamities befalling the community were considered by the sages to be punishments for this offense. R. Ḥanan b. Rabbah remarked that even though all know for what purpose a bride enters the bridal chamber, yet God would punish him who say it expressis verbis. *Gehinnom is deepened for the individual who puts his mouth to folly, and punishment is meted out also to one who hears obscenities and does not protest (Shab. 3a). The Rabbis explained that fingers are jointed like pegs so that if a man hears an unworthy statement he should be able to plug them into his ears. The whole ear is hard and the earlobe soft so that if a man hears an unworthy thought he should be able to bend the earlobe into the ear (Ket. 5a–b). Proper language at times of warfare was particularly stressed; the interdiction that "thy camp be holy; that He see no un-seemly thing in thee, and turn away from thee" (Deut. 23:15) is interpreted to mean that God shall hear no improper language in the military camp (Lev. R. 24:7).
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.
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.