A Personal History of Profanity

When it comes to my English-speaking Mormon friends, few things amaze me more than their aversion to the use of profanity.  Some will spend hours patiently defending systemic racial discrimination or a father’s attempt to slit his son’s throat in God’s name, but will recoil at the use of a common word for excrement.  For years I posted diatribes and rational critiques against god, religion and the Church, but the ones that really seemed to ruffle feathers were the ones that included carefully placed vulgarities.  In fact, cussing can scare even prophets from serving those in trouble, as President Kimball relates:

At the beach one day a group of young boys had driven their car too far out in the sand, and it was imbedded [sic] deeply. All their combined strength seemed insufficient to dislodge it. I offered to assist them, but the vile language they were using repelled me away from them. Teenagers were using the holy names of their Creator as though he were their creation. I shrank from the blasphemy and left them.

I have to admit that I grew up with an ambivalent relationship with profanity.  My parents swore like they drank–in moderation, generally with friends.  As I grew older and my friends started swearing more, I generally only swore if the punch line of a dirty joke depended on it.  My conversion and baptism washed the rest of the filth out of me, I guess.

One thing I never understood, however, even in my most prudish, conservative years, was the need to regulate others’ choice of words.  I was never offended by anyone else’s profanity–in fact, I was often flattered that people were comfortable enough with me to speak (sometimes apologetically) in their personal idiom.  I remember, as a prospective missionary, walking the railroad tracks behind a high school athletic meet with my friend Chris.  We met this hobo, and Chris turned on swearing like it was a foreign language he spoke fluently, and they hit it off.  I was impressed.  We were taught that Jesus speaks to each in his own tongue, and I can imagine Chris trying to give that vagrant a Book of Mormon in terms that truly communicated: “Dude, you have to fucking read this shit, man, ’cause it a prophet fucking wrote it by the power of God Al-fucking-mighty.”

My attitude towards swearing has obviously changed over the years.  I think church rhetoric was partly responsible.  I’d hear things like “A speaker who mouths profanity or vulgarity to punctuate or emphasize speech confesses inadequacy in his or her own language skills. Properly used, modern languages require no such artificial boosters” and think about Ulysses by James Joyce, or poetry by e. e. cummings or the brilliant script to Shawshank Redemption.  Or I’d read something to the effect of “Members of the Church, young or old, should never allow profane or vulgar words to pass their lips. The language we use projects the images of our hearts, and our hearts should be pure,” and I’d think of some of the whited sepulchres of members who I knew, who trapped the vulnerable in raw business deals, and some of my swearing friends who made great sacrifices for friends and family.  I realized that a) profanity was subjective (and a way of imposing standards of cultural superiority), and b) said more about cultural, generational and religious background than it did about the speaker’s intelligence, maturity or moral standing.  Judging people’s character by the use of vulgarity is not only culturally elitist and sometimes racist, it’s just plain naive.  Behold, this car’s paint job is pretty; ergo, it runs well.

More recently, I realize there’s a lot of power in these words.  I love the English language, and both the sacred and the profane are among my playthings.  Not only do they have power because they are forbidden, but I’ve discovered that they are a positive delight to use.  Many are short, loaded with meaning, and are capable of exploding out of the mouth.  For me, the sensation of forming the words “damn,” “shit” or “fuck” and giving birth to them is often a pleasant one.

If you disagree or are offended by these words (and you’ve made it this far), I’d love to hear from you (hopefully in rational terms).  I suspect that you will have biases connected to your generation or your religion–in the interest of science, please disclose these.  I’d love to find an atheist youth from the inner city who takes offense at the use of profanity.

Finally, in honor of these wonderful words, I’m considering running a series of posts on the best ones–perhaps some variant of George Carlin’s seven dirty words (including piss, shit, cunt, fuck), plus a few Biblically-derived ones (Jesus H. Christ, hell).  If you’re interested in writing a guest post that focuses on one of these words, please let me know, via email or the comments.  These posts can be personal reflections, etymological essays, poems, etc.  Eve Ensler’s “Cunt” performance in the Vagina Monologues comes to mind as perfect inspiration.

I get dibs on “fucking.”


  1. I immediately thought of this:

    Now, with that out of my system, I have to admit that I have quite a dirty mouth. And it got worse in high school, when, upon meeting someone from another culture, the typical greeting was, “where are you from? what languages do you speak? how do you say “fuck off” in that language?” After sharing these cultural gems, fast friendship was obtained. I know that part of this was the fact that it’s nearly impossible to swear in a foreign language (without a *lot* of practice), so in our quest to become fluent in at the very least 3 languages, these were important things to know. We used to swear at the top of our lungs while skiing. Flying down a mountain with waxed planks attached to your feet is not the same when you’re not screaming obscenities in Russian, Korean, and Italian.

    I was just last night talking to one of my sisters, the only one who responds to my occasional obscenity with an embarrassed giggle and who has lectured me extensively on how much it offends her when her coworkers swear around her. Last night, we were talking about families and divorce, and she said, “We all bring our own shit to the table.” And I said, “I don’t think I’ve heard you swear since we lived together!!!” But it’s true, “baggage” doesn’t define the kind of shit that each person brings from their own familial experience, nor does “history,” “problems,” or even “crap”.

    Although, that said, in a business setting, using swear words counts as “being abusive”. While taking notes about a telephone conversation, I often wrote, “the customer then became abusive and hung up on me” (ok, maybe not “often”, that makes it sound like people hated talking to me…), even when these were words that we all used—just not in front of the customer.

    There is an interesting standard for swearing and I think to a large extent it does come down on the side of comfort—who you are willing to swear in front of and who you simply can’t.

    I look forward to posts about swear words, although I’m not certain I could wax poetic about the merits of most of them…although maybe I’ll call “bitch”. I like bitch.

    on kids & swearing, over at Dooce

  2. I’ve got dibs on “shit”. It’s my favorite swear word. 🙂

    Seriously, as a writer I love all the words, even the so-called dirty ones. In certain circumstances, they are all that will serve, and in other circumstances they can be just as poetic as the most high-flown language. And they are just words, like any other, and only take the interpretation we give to them. I never could understand why so many of the Mormons I’ve been around think it’s just fine to say “fudge” or “fetch” in place of “fuck”, when their intention is clearly to say “fuck”.

    I should also confess, I suppose, as xJane has, that left to my own devices I have quite the potty-mouth, and always have had.

  3. are you saying that exclaiming “what the heck” doesn’t professes superior language skills?

    I mean, really? (WTF?!?)

  4. I have to say that, for me, the use of profanity roughly tracks my sexuality. As a kid such relatively sweet words as “dammit”, and “hell” were something I mostly spoke to myself and in secret. In my teens the occasional cuss word among friends was sweetly scandalous. As a young adult my exposure to hard-core profanity was mostly something I watched others doing … and mostly on film. As a middle-aged apostate I entered the ring myself, experienced great awkwardness along with the wonder of discovery at first but have become a real pro and, as with John, find hard-core cussing highly pleasurable and therapeutic.

    But, as with sex, the years of mystery and forbiddance added a great deal to my overall experience. I would say that, being raised Mormon was rather like an aphrodisiac for sex and for cussing. I almost wouldn’t want to have done it any other way. 🙂

    Finally, I would say that mixing cuss words with religious terms is where I still experience some of that lingering aphrodisia. Sweet fuckin’ Jesus.

  5. PS. Great take on the SWK quote, John. From this perspective it’s truly shocking view of the world and more shocking that at one time I adored the man for just this type of view.

  6. Re: SWK, he was know to let out a DAMN! here and there at home, apparently. Not all bad, right?

    There is obviously nothing inherently wrong with “profane” words, as all words are just sounds. For my personal use I try to make sure I’m not using them to make myself feel better or acting on an impulse (the buddhist part me talking there), and I also try to consider the audience, i.e. being polite. Those two rules generally, but not always, limit my use of profanity pretty much down to nil.

    I have found that a good “bull shit” will come across very forcefully in a lecture or meaningful discussion when one is denouncing something like ‘fathers can’t nurture’ or the ‘immigrants should be in camps.’

    Nice post.

  7. fuckin A, john!

    i came to the lds church with this mouth and i didn’t check it at the door like i did everything else.

    i’ve taken a lot of shit over at fMh for my use of hell and damn/dammit! and those are mild, i think. I’ve tried explaining how how asinine it is for people to use substitute words but good mormons don’t use that kind of language, just us fuck ups.

    my goodness. if they let out a good “SHIT!” when the dog craps all over the floor, they might feel a little better about cleaning it up.

  8. I instantly thought of this fucking video while reading:

    The Many Uses of the F Word ( Not For Kids) | Funny Jokes at JibJab

    Now, seriously. I’m an English teacher, and I was told by my school district that I couldn’t teach a book that had the word “fuck” in it. After curbing my impulse to reply to the email with “It’s just a fucking word!!”, I was able (with the help of a colleague) to convince my department head that it was okay. I still don’t think that she approves, but that’s too fucking bad. I taught the fucking book and 3 other books with the fucking word in it.

    Granted, I don’t choose books based on whether or not they have profanity in them, but I guess that’s the point. We shouldn’t base decisions on the words people, books, or movies use (the SWK quote is un-fucking-believable, btw).

    I’ve got quite a potty mouth myself. My two favorites are “shit” and “ass” (I guess I have an anal obsession–oh god, that sounds worse than I meant it!). So, since “shit” is taken, I’ll write about “ass,” at least about my ass…oh wait…shit, did I say that?

    Great post, John.

  9. You might be interested in this. Profanity recently became a hot button issue in the MN senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken, one of the most expensive races going on in the country. That link has the ads that have been flying regarding Franken’s use of profanity. I appreciated Franken’s response ad.

    I don’t know if he cusses much in daily life. In my opinion, if used regulary, profanity has zero value. However, when it is not commonly used by someone, when they do use it, people pay more attention because it means they’re seriously passionate about what they’re saying.

  10. I realized I went a little overboard on my swearing kick on my first comment. I was trying to be funny and came off a little unhinged. Oops…

  11. Jeff: not unhinged, don’t worry about it 🙂

    Also, the “many uses” made the rounds in the heyday of napster (that makes me feel old, wow) as an mp3. I still have at least two copies of it in my iTunes playlist. “Why don’t you go outside and play hide-and-go-fuck-yourself?” Classic.

    And that book sounds like the kind of thing we *want* our kids to read…wtf?

    wren: that’s pretty funny (reminds me of the muslin sign—I wish Obama would come out & admit to being a half-breed muslin, it might lighten the tone of the election :-p) & I have to agree with Franken (who is awesome): if you’re not outraged, if DC doesn’t make you want to swear, you’re not fucking paying attention!

  12. John

    Thanks, everyone! Jeff, I may just post a link to that video rather than write an essay on “fucking”!

    markii, I’m looking forward to watching the entire Pinker video–the first five minutes has me very, very interested.

    Matt, I like the intersection with the unfolding mysteries of sexuality (from the Mo perspective). And I, too, love the tension you get when you mix the sacred and the profane–definitely some synergy there. 😛

    To everyone who volunteered–thank you. You are all fucking awesome. I’m thinking of setting up a short run of guest posts–maybe we could call it “F–king Fridays” (to respect RSS subscribers who might want to filter posts in their readers based on titles). Let me know if you’re anxious to go first (a week from tomorrow).

  13. And that book sounds like the kind of thing we *want* our kids to read…wtf?

    Exactly. Last year, I themed my high school English class with middle eastern novels. I selected novels on different sides of the debate, and the books led to some very interesting debate and discussion from high school students about war, politics, torture, terrorism, etc. I’m sure my class last year could have told Charles Gibson what they thought of the Bush doctrine. Maybe one of them could be Vice President. 🙂

    Also, I’d love to show that “many uses” video in my class. I think every kid in the class would remember the parts of speech after watching it; however, I might get in trouble when they go home and tell their parents to “fuck the fucking fuckers.”


    The Franken issue reminds me of a quote:

    Take away the right to say “fuck” and you take away the right to say, “fuck the government.” –Lenny Bruce

    I think Al Franken is smart and hilarious. I wonder if we can get Jon Stewart to run for office too. 🙂

  14. I remember having to explain the dirty words from Canterbury Tales to my mom when I read them out loud to her (she didn’t understand what they meant). Most vivid in my memory is explaining to her the meaning of “cunt.” She was thoroughly scandalised, but still was certain that since the book was assigned at Ricks it was good for my soul. Mwahahahahaha!

  15. Kaimi

    Funny story:

    A law professor wrote an article titled, “Fuck.” It drew a ton of downloads on SSRN. (It’s a fun read, too. You can read it at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=896790 ). In fact, it drew so many downloads that some other professors argued that it skewed the statistics, leading to a follow up article about the reaction to Fuck. That’s at ( http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=971103 . ) 🙂

    Interestingly, in my race theory seminar, we discussed racial epithets just a few days ago. One student in the class is reading Randall Kennedy’s book (yes, that one: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0375713719 . It’s a legitimate and very interesting analysis, but it’s definitely edgy and potentially offensive to some students).

    The students took different sides on the discussion — one African American man and a Latina suggesting that the word’s use is okay, in some contexts, in the African American community, while an African American woman and two Latinas suggested that it was never okay. Interesting to see how words mean such different things to different people, and in different contexts.

  16. So, I just saw a bumpersticker that says “Bush is Poopy”…which I guess could mean he needs to be changed (in a different sense of that word), but to me just makes me wonder why they don’t want to say “crappy” or “shitty”, since it means the same thing & that’s what we really want to say…

  17. No…I can actually see the point of “Bush is Poopy” as opposed to the other choices. Because, I don’t know, he just is. Probably just me, though. 🙂

  18. This one’s irked me for years. “Cussing” is a European concept, developed by snobs during the Age of Chivalry. “Shit” is simply old middle dutch for “excrement.” But you can’t say “Shit” because it’s Anglo-Saxon. You can say “excrement” because it’s a Norman French word, and the French imperialized the English language way back in 1066. Anglo-Saxon farmers cared for pigs, cows, and chickens, but the French knew them as pork, beef, and poulty. The powers that be make the rules, and disenfranchising language is the easiest way to make sure the powers that be stay in power . . .

  19. That is an absolutely fascinating perspective, Quin: the denigration of words that aren’t from the language of the (current) establishment. It’s like My Fair Lady.

  20. I’d love to find an atheist youth from the inner city who takes offense at the use of profanity.

    Well, I’m young and atheist, but I guess I’m suburban rather than inner-city (the ‘inner city’ of my home city is pretty small). And I don’t take offense at the use of profanity, but I don’t swear very much. If I use a swear word without thinking, it will be ‘bother’ or ‘damn’.

    Mainly that’s because I’ve always been a rule-abiding type, so I’m not practiced at swearing safely. If I did it at all, I’d probably do it inappropriately. That would embarrass me.

    That said, occasionally and very rarely I do swear deliberately: in poetry, or in an email or some other constructed verbal expression that I’ve thought through beforehand. In short, I respect swear words for their power, but I don’t use them lightly.

  21. OMG! I freaking love your blog. Don’t worry, I’m Mo’ but I totally get this. Thanks for writing what we all secretly (some of us openly) want to say.

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