Anti-swearing law

Mike Salovesh t20mxs1 at CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU
Fri Feb 18 09:39:37 UTC 2000

Bapopik at AOL.COM wrote:
> This was on AOL today:
> _Mich. Judge OKs Anti-Swearing Law_
>      STANDISH, Mich. (AP)--A judge today upheld the conviction of a man who
> cursed in front of children after falling out of a canoe, ruling that
> Michigan's 102-year-old anti-swearing law is constitutional.  A district
> court jury last summer convicted Timothy Boomer, a 26-year-old computer
> programmer, of violating the ban when he let loose with a stream of
> profanities.  He was fined $75 and ordered to work four days in a child-care
> program.

Hmmm.  Maybe there could be a law against swearing that would pass
Constitutional muster with today's Supreme Court. I really doubt it,
though.  Of course, I'm not a lawyer; all I do is analyze the logics of
political and legal systems as an anthropologist.

Problem is, how did Michigan manage, 102 years ago, to devise an
anti-swearing law that didn't amount to establishing a religion by the
back door?  "Swearing", it seems to me, might have to include matters
like "taking the name of the Lord in vain" -- and I'd want to ask just
which Lord they had in mind.

The problem strikes me as similar to the currently fashionable idiocy of
passing laws requiring that the Ten Commandments be posted in
government-supported schoolrooms.  In the non-debate over that question,
I seldom hear anyone asking just which Ten Commandments of what religion
the law has in mind.  The Ten Commandments of Hebrew and Aramaic
tradition are not at all the same as those contained in the Catholic
version of the Bible; King James and the Revised Standard and any half
dozen other Bible versions you might pick up are going to use different
words and different numbers for particular commandments.  (Just ask any
two people who claim to know to specify what the Sixth Commandment says.
The only way that won't start a fight is if you ask two members of the
same religious order.)

I write this as a serious question about American dialects.  In today's
setting, how can "swearing" be defined in secular terms?  Can the job be
done at all, or is the essence of "swearing" intimately tied to
religious belief? Imagine a list of swear words that meet two criteria:
1)there is very wide agreement among speakers of most American dialects
that each word clearly is "swearing", and 2) it is highly probable that
each word on the list would still be regarded as swearing a century from
now.  How long would your list of such words be? How much agreement
would you expect there to be between your list and similar lists set up
by a dozen members of ADS, selected at random?

There seem to be a lot of words that once were regarded as "swearing"
that are now part of everyday speech.  I can think of only one word
which is almost universally regarded as swearing whenever it occurs.  It
once was accurate to describe that word, "f**k", as the "ultimate
unprintable", but it seems to pop up in print in all kinds of places

That's not really news.  Some 35 to 40 years ago, we who taught freshman
social science in a Chicago City Junior College had trouble each
semester with that word in print.  Goffmann's "Presentation of Self in
Everyday Life" was on our required reading list.  It was amazing how
quickly students discovered, and transmitted to each other,  that on
page 15 in the Doubleday Anchor edition Goffmann considers some
implications of a sentence he alleges was spoken by a sailor home on
leave. The sentence reads "Pass the fucking butter, please."  No stars,
no hyphens, no elisions. We managed to avoid public outcry about that.

We were luckier than a colleague teaching an elective, more or less
advanced course on 20th century U.S. literature.  That's too broad a
topic; she narrowed it by following a theme through a wide range of
titles.  One year she decided to use "love and hate" as her theme, and
she assigned James Baldwin's "Another Country" as one of 8 or 10 novels
on her required reading list. A 26-year-old woman who was a student in
the class showed the book to her father.  He was so outraged that he
took the book away from his daughter, and brought it to his  alderman
with a complaint against the rampant indecency in classes at Wright
Junior College.  The alderman leafed through the book, then instigated a
blown investigation in the Chicago City Council.  In one of his canned
public speeches, he would say that he was a veteran of service in the US
Navy during World War II, and he had never heard language as crude as
that which appears in Baldwin's book.  (That doesn't sound like any US
Navy I ever heard of . . . ) The story and the investigation ran for

The gal who assigned the book was not fired or punished in any way, and
I was proud of my school for that.  Well, no good deed goes entirely
unpunished.  Her punishment was that she had to change her custom of
keeping her lit class fresh by changing the reading list every
semester.  Once there was so much fuss about "Another country", she felt
honor bound to include it in her required reading list from then on.
After a year or two, she really was tired of that book -- and still felt
she had to keep it on the list, because the same idiot alderman would
mention it in City Council every once in a while.

This list has recently looked at the problem of "swear words" in a
couple of ways: in considering the trans-Atlantic rift in  whether
"bloody" is shocking, and in Barry's provision of an old Playboy
Magazine list of words for the south end of a chicken going north.
(Playboy's list was fun and interesting, but far from complete.)

Would somebody please tell me more about how I can recognize a swear
word if one happens to get loose in my neighborhood?  If I'm going to
break any laws, I'd prefer to do it consciously, and I do pass through
Michigan from time to time.

-- mike salovesh      <salovesh at>      PEACE !!!

P.S.: Barry's comment on the Michigan case was:

>     Maybe Boomer was just getting ready for Windows 2000?

I don't need Win/Lose 2000 to start swearing at Micro Soft-in-the-head.
After the stability and usefulness of CP/M, the early versions of DOS
did that.  And when MS rigged something like Win 3.0 or Win 3.1 or
something around there to screw up the use of DR DOS, I started turning
on the afterburners on my flame throwers.

"Microsoft", "Windows",  and "Bill Gates" are very  high on my list of
swear words today.  I'm enough of an optimist to believe that those
words aren't candidates for permanent swearhood: Windows won't go on
forever, will it?

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