Four-letter words

rogersgeorge on January 7th, 2012

Yes, this post is about bad language. Does profanity have a place in writing? Not in the kind of writing I advocate; just the same, profanity is an interesting subject.

Perhaps a small glossary is in order.

Profanity—terms that call to mind the purely earthly and secular.
Cursing—wishing someone ill.
Swearing—calling the deity to be a witness of the truth of a promise.
Minced oath—changing a bad word or phrase to avoid the stigma of using the actual expression.
Insult—accusing someone of possessing undesirable traits.

First, why do we call profanity “four-letter words”? Back in 1066 when the Norman French defeated the English, Anglo-Saxon got relegated to the barnyards, and pretty much lost all social standing. Perfectly ordinary (sometimes four-letter) words took on this low status, and we have inherited this social standing for many words of Anglo-Saxon origin. So we say “cow” when it’s on the hoof, and “beef” when it’s on the plate. You can supply your own examples for bodily functions, whose social status fell rather more sharply than terms for food.

On the plate

On the hoof

In our culture, direct public references to private bodily functions using words of Anglo-Saxon origin have almost no place in polite conversation, even though the words themselves have benign origins. You might be interested to learn, for example, that the word for sexual intercourse has one of the longest and most distinguished etymologies of any word in our language. Look it up in your copy of Carl Darling Buck’s A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages. This tome is a fascinating read, by the way, but that’s a topic for another post.

Even when the topic of your writing covers these private functions (a medical document, for example) you should use Greek- and Latin-based technical terms.  That’s just how it is. Using profane four-letter words distracts your reader from the subject matter; and remember, your goal is to let your writing be transparent.

What about cursing? It carries the same social stigma as profanity. If you’re explaining something, you don’t need to curse. I have a problem wishing ill on anyone under any circumstances, but I can see how it might fit into some fiction and polemical writing.

And swearing? (Which of the Ten Suggestions Commandments is it?) “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” Vain means “of little value; temporary.” God says He doesn’t want to be called to witness anything trivial. I think the admonition in the New Testament that “Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay” is reasonable. Whether you believe in God or not, you don’t need to emphasize what you say by reference to deity. Just say what you mean; always tell the truth. Period.

What about saying “darn” or “sacré bleu” instead of “damn” or “by the devil”? The intent is the same as using the “official” bad word; just as undesirable, in my opinion. Be creative! Say what you mean with realistic or clever unconventional words. “I wish you better understood the value of silence.” “You really missed a good opportunity to not say anything, didn’t you?” “I wish your behavior weren’t so reprehensible.” “I certainly hope that doesn’t happen again.” “It wasn’t a year one would look back on with fondness, was it?”

Finally, insults. Insults are perhaps the most benign type of bad language because they lend themselves to creativity. Shakspeare used some wonderful insults in his plays. Remember the old westerns on afternoon TV in the 50s? “Why you mangy lily-livered polecat! I oughta slit yer gizzle.” Actual bad language was forbidden back then, so some of the language got pretty colorful. Nonetheless, insults are ad hominem arguments, fallacious. Stand above that sort of thing.

Enough! I need to go take a shower.

All these proscribed words are bad mainly for cultural reasons. This negative emotional effect has one benefit, however, in some kinds of speech therapy. Watch the movie The King’s Speech and you’ll see what I mean.

What if you want to express the emotion of disappointment, frustration, surprise, or disapproval? If you can’t do these without resorting to profanity, here’s a little help. I recently ran into a word for that purpose that seems to have absolutely no scatological or other culturally unpleasant connotation. I ran into it in a Google error message: Oh Snap!

Even though I digress occasionally, the kind of writing I expose you to in these humble pages is expository writing; writing that conveys information with as few distractions as possible. Profanity, cursing, swearing, and insults cannot help you express yourself plainly. Save those things for trashy novels and old westerns.

For vocabulary that I never use, this has been a long post. Eight  hundred eleven words.

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2 Responses to “Four-letter words”

  1. Hi, Rogers!

    As you know, I often read your musings and see the other side. Profanity and obscenity are a good example; I think these are honorable parts of our language, perfectly worthy and acceptable forms of expression. When you want to generate a little shock, nothing does it like an old Saxon classic!

    That said, an entire treatise laced with them quickly becomes tiresome, and a writer who cannot generate surprise or tension without them isn’t much of a writer, in my opinion.

    (And I’m still chuckling over “Ten Suggestions.” Thanks)

  2. Well said! It’s not the use of profanity but the “overuse” that disturbs most of us. Your example of “The King’s Speech” was perfect.

    Here’s a really good movie/documentary that takes a look at our most ‘profound’ profanity:


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