Bad words

Duane Campbell dcamp911 at JUNO.COM
Tue Jul 9 02:37:02 UTC 2002

On Mon, 8 Jul 2002 19:21:52 EDT "James A. Landau"
> dcamp911 at JUNO.COM writes an article which is very interesting, but
> which, in
> my opionion, is a red herring.

Thank you for bring this topic finally to content.

> Not entirely correct.  According to MWCD10, "condemn" and "damn"
> both come
> via French from Latin "damnare".

True. But I am not certain that it hits the mark. "Damn" has always had a
use in standard, socially acceptable English. There is a difference
between "he was damned to a life of wandering" and "Damn you!" The coarse
language of 12th century peasants is mostly undocumented. But I would
suspect, with absolutely no academic credentials to support it, that the
latter use of "damn" is more closely related to the contemporary German
"verdammt," which is pretty much as bad as German gets, than to the usage
in etymological dictionaries.

>  "Piss" is also from
> French---compare the
> name of the famous statue "Le Manequin-Pis".

Again, agreed. But "piss" is not really such a bad word. My
mother-in-law, a fine Methodist woman, may she rest in peace, who would
never allow a bad word or a bottle of alcohol in her house, felt no
inhibition in calling someone who gained her disfavor a "pisspot".  And
"pisshouse" was a common rural name for the outdoor convenience.

>  "bastard" also comes
> from
> French, but its euphemism "love child" is from two Germanic words.

But "love child" is a very recent coinage. I don't think it can be
applied as an argument for the historical tradition of bad words. And
"bastard" is not in itself a bad word, when used to describe a child born
outside of marriage. The aforementioned William was called William the
Bastard. As such it is descriptive. The pejorative nature of it comes not
from the word or the derivation of the word but from the circumstances.

> One major objection:  there are languages which contain "bad words"
> but which
> do not have English's dual linguistic heritage.

And I think that would be worth exploring. I know that, as an American
living in Gemany and speaking passable German, it was very unsatisfying
to try to swear in German. Though you could say things that were
insulting, there were simply no words that carried the emotional release
of "F--k you!" On a cultural level, the best you might do is something
equivalent to "Go piss up a rope."

> Let's see.  Most English "bad words" fall into the following five
> classes:
> 1.  Religious---damn, Hell, God-damn, Jesus H. Christ (a Greek
> rendering of
> the Hebrew/Aramaic for "Joshua the Annointed").

And I would point out that these are generally considered rather mild
profanity, much of which can be said in prime time television. The
exception would be "God damn," which is scripturally prohibited.

> 2.  Excretion---piss, shit, and I suppose we should include
> "douche-bag"

But urinate, defecate and ... well, whatever ... are perfectly acceptable
in context. I think this supports my argument.

> 3.  Sex---make up your own list

Copulate, vagina, phallus, fellatio, cunnilingus. All of which, in a
mixed audience and in an appropriate context, would not be blinked at.
Use the Germanic equivalents in the same conversation and you will not be
invited back. Believe me, I know.

> 4.  Canine---bitch, son-of-a-bitch

Gotta think about that. It is perhaps related to the German use of
"schweinhund. "

> 5.  Ethnic slurs---the infamous N-word is the most obvious.

A whole different situation. It is the cultural situation that makes the
words bad, not the derivation.

> What categories 1, 2, 3, and 5 have in common is very simple---the
> subjects
> they are used to discuss are taboo, or more exactly there are many
> and
> various taboos about discussing them among English speakers.

I agree, and I disagree.

(!) The religious taboo is very strictly defined: You shall not take the
word of God in vain. And I specifically exempted that from my article.

(2) You can talk about excetion in context with no difficulty. I am
becoming an old person, and believe me, they talk about excretion. But in
proper company they use words from Romance languages, not Germanic.

(3) Sex. Again, use Latin. Not German.

(5) An entirely differently category. I will agree that the derivation of
any particular word is less important than the modern social use of any
given word.

> there are
> sub-languages within English for discussing these subjects: one for
> male
> locker rooms

agreed. Male locker rooms tend to be coarse.

,>one (using words such as "derrierie") for polite
> socieity, etc.

Sorry, but I think you are making my point.

> Some notes about 1) religion.  The Commandment "You shall not take
> the Name
> of the Eternal your God in vain", when interpreted as a prohibition
> of
> blasphemy

Well (and here I will make my sole claim of better credentials than the
rest of you), no. It is closely related to the "false witness" rule and
goes back to an ancient taboo of speaking the name of G*d.

> Conclusion:
>  "bad language" are those words which are taboo in conversation
> among
> polite/civilized/proper people.

Exactly.  The question is, How did they become taboo. The concepts are
acceptable. It's the words.


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