Anti-swearing law

Anne Gilbert avgilbert at PRODIGY.NET
Fri Feb 18 19:58:41 UTC 2000

----- Original Message -----
From: Mike Salovesh <t20mxs1 at CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU>
Sent: Friday, February 18, 2000 1:39 AM

To all:

> Hmmm.  Maybe there could be a law against swearing that would pass
> Constitutional muster with today's Supreme Court. I really doubt it,
> though

This is what I was wondering, re the Michigan law.  Maybe they have a
different version of the Constitution in Michigan????
> 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.

One might argue that 102 years ago, it was *assumed* that "all of us", at
least in Michigan were churchgoers, and so the question just didn't even
come up.

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.

This is true enough.  I've seen various translations of the Bible, and I
know what you're talking about.  However, the kind of people who would post
the Ten Commandments in classrooms or other public spaces are most likely
the kind of people who know only the King James Version, the New
International Version(a favorite of fundamentalists), or some similar
version.  They are not likely to know the Ten Commandments in Hebrew or
Aramaic, or they may well think the other translations are not "literal"
enough to satisfy them.  They have a very narrow view of faith, as you may
> 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?

But you "swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the
truth", in a court of law.  Usually, this is "sworn" over a Bible, but a
court of law is a secular, not a religious institution.

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?

Here, you are getting to the root of another problem.  What we consider
"swearing" has probably changed drastically, even in the past 30 years.
Many adults use the "s-word" commonly, and it's unremarkable.  The "f-word"
is still taboo, and even adults who have children(I know this from
experience) try not to use the "s-word" around children, and try to modify
their language in other ways, at least when their children are small.

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
> nowadays.

I've heared perfectly well brought up adults use the "f-word" at times.  But
again, *nobody* that I know of, would use this word around children.  We
still don't want our children to "talk like this".

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.

I don't remember that particular sentence when I read Goffman, more years
ago than I care to remember, but at the same time, I was well aware that
sailors, people in the military, etc., etc., "talked that way".  It's just
that the rest of the world was not "supposed" to.

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
> full-
> 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 . . . )

Doesn't sound like any military institution *I* ever heard of, either.  Or
any college campus, for that matter.

> 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.

You have to remember that part of the "swearing" issue goes back to a small
group of people who would impose *their* ideas of "decency" and "morals" on
everybody else.  They are usually *very* vocal folks, and many of the rest
of us just go along with it, to avoid argument, rather than try to challenge
the idiocy of their beliefs, re literature and "forbidden" words and

Just a few random thoughts,
Anne Gilbert

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