No matter how or when foul language is used, by definition it is offensive and profane. It can argued, of course, that offensiveness and profanity are both subjective. What you consider offensive might not be for someone else. A good example of this shows up in the film, My Fair Lady. As a test to see how well developed and refined Eliza Doolittle’s language use had become, she is brought to the Ascot Derby. She mingles with the best of them, but she lets her emotions run ahead of her in the excitement of the race and shouts, “Come on Dover! Move your bloomin’ arse!” Everyone, of course, is embarrassed by such foul language.
I have yet to find out of the the sound phrase ‘arse’ is cockney or if the film purposely injected this sound so as to avoid scandal. The film was produced in 1964 and in my nine-year old mind, the posterior of anything was not usually mentioned. The technical point of the film, of course, is that Eliza failed her test in high society, reverting to her normative speech, and she must continue her studies with Professor Higgins.
When I was growing up, rarely if ever was an obscenity uttered. I, along with my siblings, never had our mouths washed with soap, but I think we were very well aware of the meaning of this expression. I remember that my seventh-grade teacher, a Sister of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM), had become disgusted with what she was hearing in the classroom: ‘jeez’ and calling people by their last names! She said she knew that ‘Jeez’ was a slimmed-down version of the name of the Lord and, therefore was completely unacceptable.
To the best of my recollection, foul language was not permitted in television programs back then, yet we still hear ‘bleeps’ even today. Ironically, foul language was not permitted, but heavy non-stop smoking was allowed! Hospital programs would often show doctors announcing bad news to a patient and then lighting up and offering a puff to the disenchanted patient as a means of relaxing him or her.
While it is certain that foul language has been around a long time it seems to be more audible, more permitted these days. Maybe it’s what I’m watching on tv or reading, but abusive language, in my humble opinion, is overly emphasized. Sometimes, I wonder if people really talk like that. I guess, in some circles, they do.
Those who study language and, in particular, foul language tell us that swear words can be helpful. Steven Pinker, a Montreal psychologist and linguist proposes several functions of using foul language in his book, The Thought of Stuff, (2007). Viking Press. I borrow here a summary from Wikipedia: (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Profanity)
- ABUSIVE swearing, intended to offend, intimidate or otherwise cause emotional or psychological harm
- CATHARTIC swearing, used in response to pain or misfortune
- DYSPHEMISTIC swearing, used to convey that the speaker thinks negatively of the subject matter and to make the listener do the same
- EMPHATIC swearing, intended to draw additional attention to what is considered to be worth paying attention to
- IDIOMATIC swearing, used for no other particular purpose, but as a sign that the conversation and relationship between speaker and listener is informal
Dr. Pinker reminds us that these are ‘possible’ functions of swearing. His categories and definitions make sense to me. This is why I added the image of an angry man using profanity. It is clear that language has the purpose of blowing off steam. My question though is, “Do all of our emotions give us license to say whatever comes from our mouths?’ Probably not. Clearly, in some television programming foul language is overdone and unnecessary to the plot or even to the development of a character.
Am I being a prude? Perhaps, but the use of foul language still teases the Christian soul. Many times people tell me that they wish they could stop swearing. I usually gave two points to consider. 1.) Language is a learned habit. What has become a habit can become non-habitual in a few weeks; 2.) Substitute the foul words with words that can express emotion, but without obscenity. Here, I point out psalmist’s plea, Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips! (Psalm 141:3). We don’t have to feel forced to use the foul langage of others. Fr. Thomas J. Reese writes, Bad language used for shock value is childish and in bad taste but not very sinful. Bad language that demeans people and incites violence is another question.
Obscene language certainly has its limit as well as it also has its degree. Safeguards in society are in place. Some words and expressions in certain circles (cultures) are common enough and some are also spoken with complete innocence. A safeguard was given to me by an old gentleman friend who objected to my use of the phrase, In like Flynn. He said it was quite unbecoming especially for a priest to use and further explained that the phrase was an explicit reference to Errol Flynn’s sexual proclivity. I had never heard this before, but it made sense and have not used it ever since.
Another common safeguard is our environment. We speak differently, don’t we, in different locations? We often hear about bar room or workplace language. We are taught that sailors seem to have the most foul of tongues by way of the expression, swear like a sailor. In courtrooms, nasty tongues are curbed by the judge’s gavel and it is rare to hear obscenities from the pulpit. Although one time at a country parish where my family went when we were camping, the priest said, “On such a beautiful morning, I hate to give you hell.” We were awakened instantly and he went on to preach about hell. Very effective.
Swearing, as language, is a part of the human drama. The problem for me is the constant use of it. Some people can’t seem to say anything without this word or that word. To me, this is a sign of a small vocabulary, and has no purposeful meaning. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t grow up exposed to foul language and still don’t use it today. I also mentioned in my introduction that foul language is by definition offensive and profane. Let us take an example then from Eliza Doolittle who had to go back to school when her emotions got the best of her and horrified society with the little word, ‘arse.’ I can hardly utter it today! By the way, I haven’t used the word “Jeez’ since 1972 when the good sister told us that she knows what we’re really saying! She apparently knew what I did not.