Fleeting "Fucking": Original Sinn

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People have had a lot of fun with FCC chairman Kevin Martin's claim that "the F-word "inherently has a sexual connotation" whenever it's used. Daniel Drezner asked, "If I say 'F#$% Kevin Martin and the horse he rode in on,' am I obviously encouraging rape and bestiality?" And as Chris Potts makes clear, if you measure a word's connotations by the items it co-occurs with, fucking doesn't seem to keep particularly salacious company. So it's simply wrong to claim that these emphatic, expletive, and figurative uses of the word (e.g., as in fuck up etc.) fall afoul of the FCC's rules, which define indecency as language that  “depicts or describes… sexual or excretory activities or organs.” 

But hang on. Emphatic fucking may not depict or refer to sex, and may not even bring it explicitly to mind. But the link is still there. Why would these uses of the word be considered "dirty"  if they weren't polluted by its primary literal use? And what could be the original source of that taint if not the word's literal denotation (or at least, of its denotation relative to the attitudes that obscene words presuppose about sex and the body)? In fact if fuck and fucking weren't connected to sex in all their secondary uses, they would serve no purpose at all. 

I mean "taint" and "pollution" in a literal way — dirty words are magic spells that conjure up their references. We first learn about dirty words at an age when we still believe literally in magic, and I don't think anything we learn afterwards palliates their irrational power. That's why we behave as if we could render them inefficacious by the simple expedient of using asterisks in place of some of their letters — magical spells have no power unless you say them just so . And it's why they bleed through quotation marks and the other devices we use to hold content at arm's length: if the New York Times can't allow itself to print "Adam Clymer is an asshole" then it can't print "Bush called Adam Clymer an asshole," either (strong racial epithets have these properties, as well). And most important here, it's why they retain their stigma even when they're detached from their literal references and applied to other things (meddling, bungling, cheating, and so on), or turned into simple emphatic noises.

Now it's very easy to conclude that the indignation that some people feel over the promiscuous use of epithetical fucking and the like is a reflection of their prudish inhibitions about sexuality, and that embracing the language helps to dispel those attitudes. As George Carlin put it, "There are no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad Intentions." That was an article of faith among a the faction among the sixties radicals who made sexual liberation an inseparable part of their political programs. As Jerry Rubin put it

There's one word which Amerika hasn't destroyed. One word which has maintained its emotional power and purity. Amerika cannot destroy it because she dare not use it. It's illegal! It's the last word left in the English language: FUCK!

The naked human body is immoral under Christianity and illegal under Amerikan law. Nudity is called "indecent exposure." Fuck is a dirty word because you have to be naked to do it.

I think most cultural liberals still uncritically adopt a version of this understanding of the words. When they uphold people's right to use this sort of language in public against the attempts to censor or limit it, they think of themselves not just as defending free speech, but as striking a blow against sexual repression and hypocrisy. That is, they see themselves as being in a line that stretches back to the Lady Chatterly decision — part of the long historical process that Rochelle Gurstein describes as "the repeal of reticence."

But if it ever were possible to purge fuck of its literal stigma by eliminating the inhibitions and hangups that the word seems to trail, the secondary uses of the word would lose their raison d'etre. Fucking can only work in its figurative meanings if it remains dirty in its literal meaning. If there's still an aggressive intensity to calling somebody a fucking asshole it's because we haven't abandoned our conviction that sex and the body are something to be ashamed of. Every time we use fucking as an emphatic, whether to commend or condemn something, we strike a little blow for old-fashioned sexual values. 

That isn't to say that we shouldn't continue to oppose any legal and administrative penalties to using these words and defend people's right to use them in appropriate circumstances (I don't need to hear them on "Meet the Press"). But we should acknowledge that the words are suffused with an affect that's derived from their sexual meanings. (It doesn't really matter whether you want to call that a connotation, which is a word that can have a lot of meanings, most of them imprecise — though in an odd way, I think these are connotations in the sense of J. S. Mill, who invented the modern logical sense of the word).



49 Comments

  1. Nathan said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 4:05 pm

    I contend that it is useful to have some words so strong that you can't say them on the air. Allowing the use of fuck on TV would take away some of its power, and I'm not sure I want that. Swear words may not be a renewable resource.

  2. kip said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 4:18 pm

    "Fucking can only work in its figurative meanings if it remains dirty in its literal meaning"

    Are "damn" and "hell" similarly losing their dirtiness because of the decreased role of religion in daily life, or have they always been minor dirty words?

    GN: They're milder now than they once were. I talked about this in a "Fresh Air" piece a few years ago.

  3. Timothy Martin said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 4:29 pm

    Fucking can only work in its figurative meanings if it remains dirty in its literal meaning. If there's still an aggressive intensity to calling somebody a fucking asshole it's because we haven't abandoned our conviction that sex and the body are something to be ashamed of.

    I'm sorry if I missed this in your post, but what exactly is the evidence to support this? Why can't "fuck" be an emotional intensifier and words like "fucker" be a bad name to call someone regardless of whether there is another word pronounced the same way that happens to refer to sex?

    GN: The force of fucking and the like derives from their being transgressive, the implication being that the speaker's emotions are so strong as to overcome the inhibitions that ordinarily attach to saying the words. (That's what Erving Goffman was getting at when he compared these words to "response cries" like ow! and oops!) So there's nothing in the concept expressed by asshole, for example, that couldn't in principle be expressed by a non-taboo word like goober, but the latter couldn't have the same emotional impact. With a few notable and interesting exceptions (e.g. bloody), words that convey this kind of emotional emphasis have current literal meanings that make their use violations of taboo, sometimes absolute (in the case of obscenities and scatologies that are always vulgar) and sometimes situational (as in the use of words like hell and damn in "low," nonsacral — literally "profane" — contexts).

  4. Soroush said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 4:42 pm

    The Language Log is the best fucking blog.

  5. John Cowan said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 4:56 pm

    I suspect there are mutually self-reinforcing effects here: the swear words allude to sexuality, which is taboo, and are used to publicly express hatred, contempt, etc. — which is also taboo.

    There's an article, the author of which I can't recall, which uses dictionary definitions to show that sexual intercourse is apparently just as problematic a term in our culture as fucking, modulo the emotional affect of the terms. When the article was written, most or all dictionaries excluded fuck, and provided seriously deficient definitions of sexual intercourse. I reran the test by looking up sexual intercourse and fuck in three online dictionaries. Executive summary: nothing has changed.

    m-w.com, unbelievably, actually dares to define sexual intercourse recursively, thus: "1: Heterosexual intercourse involving penetration of the vagina by the penis : coitus. 2: Intercourse (as anal or oral intercourse) that does not involve penetration of the vagina by the penis." Looking at intercourse, the relevant definition is: "3: Physical sexual contact between individuals that involves the genitalia of at least one person, as anal intercourse, oral intercourse; especially sexual intercourse". (Fuck is defined using sexual intercourse.) What use are all these words? The reader has to guess at the meaning based on what little is said and what is not said.

    The AHD is no better: sexual intercourse is defined as "1. Coitus between humans. 2. Sexual union between humans involving genital contact other than vaginal penetration by the penis." In turn, coitus is defined as "Sexual union between a male and a female involving insertion of the penis into the vagina", and the relevant sense of union is just "5b: Sexual intercourse". (Again, fuck is defined using sexual intercourse.) Round and round we go.

    LDOCE, which uses a 2000-word controlled vocabulary in its definitions, is not helpful in a different way: "The physical activity of two people having sex with each other." There is no entry for have sex, and the part of the definition of have that's relevant defines it as "have sex". (Fuck is likewise defined as "have sex".)

    In short, if you don't know what sexual intercourse means, then however diligently you use your dictionaries, all you will learn that it's some sort of activity involving contact between, or penetration of, vaginas by penises. Or perhaps not. I submit that these definitions are not proper lexicography.

    Contrast the definitions of digestion, a physiological process which is not taboo, and therefore dictionary makers feel free to explain it. m-w.com says "The process of making food absorbable by dissolving it and breaking it down into simpler chemical compounds that occurs in the living body chiefly through the action of enzymes secreted into the alimentary canal", AHD says "The process by which food is converted into substances that can be absorbed and assimilated by the body. It is accomplished in the alimentary canal by the mechanical and enzymatic breakdown of foods into simpler chemical compounds", and LDOCE says (under digest) "To change food that you have just eaten into substances that your body can use". All three are quite informative.

  6. Karen said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 5:08 pm

    Emotional intensifiers with no connection to taboo vocabulary lose their strength rapidly and have to be replaced. "Terribly" and "awfully" are examples. "Fucking" retains its vigor precisely because it's connected to a taboo sense.

  7. Gretchen said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 5:18 pm

    "Fuck" is useful not only because it denotes sexual activity, but because it connotes a certain attitude toward that activity. People who are having sex because they have some kind of positive relationship usually pick another expression to describe their activities. I believe that's why it's such a powerful word.

  8. Nathan Myers said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 5:31 pm

    Swear words are in no sense an exhaustable resource. Ask any sailor. Recall Mark Twain's wife repeating his tirade back to him word for word, to the response, "you got the words right, Livy, but you don't know the tune". [Google finds it quoted in astonishing variety; this one comes from the Yale BoQ. My name above links to a relevant essay.]

    If consensual fucking is finally recognized as an ordinary activity, there's always ratfucking. Political operatives, e.g. Stone, are often accused of it. Some idle accusations remain outside propriety; even in Pulp Fiction nobody was called any sort of rapist, as I recall, unless the mothers imputed are presumed not to have consented. Arlo Guthrie once tried to shock us in "Alice's Restaurant": father rapers. However, it was routinely broadcast without consequence, I suppose because nobody actually used the expression (yet) in cussing.

  9. janes'_kid said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 5:43 pm

    Many decades ago when I was a kid on the farm piss was quite OK in the literal sense, even in the presence of women and children, but as an expletive it was taboo except among adult males.

    Now merriam-webster.com.com says 'piss off' is sometimes vulgar.

  10. Chris Waigl said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 5:57 pm

    I hope this is not going off on too much of a tangent, but I found your use of "literal" interesting:

    Why would these uses of the word be considered "dirty" if they weren't polluted by its primary literal use? And what could be the original source of that taint if not the word's literal denotation [...]?[...]

    I mean "taint" and "pollution" in a literal way — dirty words are magic spells that conjure up their references. We first learn about dirty words at an age when we still believe literally in magic, and I don't think anything we learn afterwards palliates their irrational power.

    What do you mean by, I paraphrase, a primary use or denotation of a word literally tainting a [secondary] use of it, or a word being literally dirty?

  11. Timothy Martin said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 6:49 pm

    In response to Geoff Nunberg: "The force of fucking and the like derives from their being transgressive, the implication being that the speaker's emotions are so strong as to overcome the inhibitions that ordinarily attach to saying the words."

    That's exactly the conclusion that I'm seeking evidence for. We learn the meanings and connotations of most, if not all, words by the way people around us use those words. Why can't the force of fucking and the like derive simply from the fact that people use them forcefully? And if you want to know why "goober" doesn't have the same emotional impact as "asshole", can't you just say it's because no linguistic community has imbued "goober" with that kind of force?

    If the force of words like "asshole" comes from their alternative, taboo meanings, then what would occur when someone who didn't know a word's literal meaning was exposed to people using it in its vulgar, non-literal sense? Based on your claim, we would have to assume that such a person would be unable to recognize the force behind the use of the word, and would be unable to use the word with true force themselves – until such time as they learned the literal, taboo meaning of the word.

    But I don't think that idea meshes very well with reality at all. A foreigner in an English-speaking land should be perfectly capable of learning the insulting usage of words like "bitch" or "twat" without knowing what their respective original meanings were. And to give a personal example, I'm pretty sure I knew how to insult someone by calling them a "douchebag" long before I knew the literal meaning of the word.

    Lastly, in some languages (if not English, as well) it is still possible to phrase something with "aggressive intensity" without using taboo words. An apt translation of "wake the fuck up" into Japanese would be "okiyagare" (起きやがれ), which involves simply the word for "wake up", and an insulting sentence ending inflected in the command form. The sentence ending has no meaning on its own, although it is believed that it may have derived from "agaru", the verb for "to rise" or "to come up." So there are no taboo words involved, yet the Japanese retains the original aggressive intensity of the English. So the question is, if you can have aggressive intensity without taboo words in some cases, why is it necessary that the aggressive intensity of calling someone a "fucking asshole" depends on "the conviction that sex and the body are something to be ashamed of"? Again, it seems more like the aggressive intensity of the phrase depends on the fact that people use that phrase with aggressive intensity.

  12. Fencing Bear said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 7:03 pm

    "It seems more like the aggressive intensity of the phrase depends on the fact that people use that phrase with aggressive intensity."

    Perhaps a good test case here: the use of the word "frak" on "Battlestar Galactica." Its initial and final consonants make clear that it is intended as a stand-in for "fuck" but with asterisks, as it were. The characters in the show use "frak" with the same intensity that English-speakers use "fuck" and, to my mind at least, it sounds just as dirty as the word it is intended to replace. Am I translating "frak" as I hear it so that somehow it means "fuck" (as in sexual intercourse) or is it the characters' anger that I am sensing? After all, "frak" doesn't mean anything literally, but it is clearly a dirty word as used in context.

  13. John S. Wilkins said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 7:11 pm

    Did Mill give "connotation" its modern sense (I presume you mean in the System of Logic)? The term had a long history before him, I think, and Mill would have encountered it in many post-medieval logics.

    GN: Well, Mill's primacy here is sort of retrospective: he tends to be the point of departure in modern discussions of the connotation-denotation distinction, for example by Kripke in Naming and Necessity.

  14. Nick Lamb said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 7:26 pm

    John Cowan, my actual hardback dictionary (Collins Concise 1982) says that sexual intercourse is:

    “the act of sexual procreation in which the male's erect penis is inserted into the female's vagina; copulation; coitus".

    It says elsewhere that to procreate is to create offspring. I don't think this definition leaves a lot to the imagination for human readers, who presumably have considerable experience of owning either a penis or a vagina and if they're old enough to have graduated from picture dictionaries, also probably already spent some time wondering about the problem of their own existence. If someone is looking for "How to" pictorial instructions, lessons about relationships with other people, medical advice, etc. they're looking in the wrong part of the reference section.

    Timothy, agreed, I want quality evidence if I'm going to be sold this hypothesis about "fuck".

  15. TootsNYC said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 7:36 pm

    *****
    And to give a personal example, I'm pretty sure I knew how to insult someone by calling them a "douchebag" long before I knew the literal meaning of the word.
    *****

    This is true for me as well.

    And, now that I know its lteral meaning, I *never* use it to insult someone.

  16. David Kidd said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 7:39 pm

    I agree with Timothy Martin (both posts). I don't think there is any evidence that the emotional, social or rhetorical force of taboo words comes from a denotational meaning of, or a connotational association with, impurity.

    For example, the funny story about my Mom's naivete and prudishness is that she new "shit" was a bad word, but it wasn't until she was married (to a sailor) at the age of 20 that she learned what it meant. Of course, you could argue that her misunderstanding still had her associate the word with a non-specific impurity.

    This almost seems to be Argument by Etymology in a certain sense–as if there was a time when the word "fuck" had a more "pure" meaning (i.e., fewer connotations) and was only associated with sex rather than anger. I just don't think we make word choices based on this logic. We choose for rhetorical force. As Mr. Nunberg claims,

    "We first learn about dirty words at an age when we still believe literally in magic, and I don't think anything we learn afterwards palliates their irrational power."

    And we also first learn about dirty words without learning their meaning. We learn the rhetorical force, and the social significances, of the words before we care about their meaning.

  17. Peter Hollo said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 8:58 pm

    I was going to post this anyway, and then David Kidd said his last sentence above… So:

    When I was a kid, I had no idea of the sexual connotation of "sucks". I remember a time when I'd written "Harmony Sucks!" in despair on my notepad during study, and my Mum came in and saw it, and was (only a little bit) offended. She told me I shouldn't use terms like that, and although she's not a prude really, she phrased it in such a way that I realised that "sucking" referred to something. It's not that I didn't know about oral sex – I just hadn't connected the phrase to the act!

    I think that these days a word like "fucking" is *almost* as removed from its sexual meaning when used as an intensifier. It takes a long time for most people to connect "motherfucker" with "a person who fucks mothers", and for that matter to realise that that's apparently a really bad thing.

    This isn't to say that the words' original power didn't come from their sexual/taboo connotations. But I don't believe for a second that their usage in general discourse brings in any sort of sexual aspect to the conversation.

  18. Blake Stacey said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 10:55 pm

    What about positive uses of the word fucking as an intensifier? For example, "That's one sweet fucking hybrid car," or "I've met some smart people in my day, but she is a fucking brilliant physicist." Do these automagically lend weight to the notion that human sexuality is to be celebrated?

  19. Bill Walderman said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 11:19 pm

    Is anyone else old enough to remember this as an undergraduate?

    http://home.twcny.rr.com/lonniechu/QUANG.html

  20. Nathan Myers said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 11:50 pm

    I recall being disappointed when I heard "frak" used in Battlestar Galactica to refer to actual fucking.

  21. Chad Nilep said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 12:45 am

    Forgive the topic drift.

    John Cowan wrote:

    In short, if you don't know what sexual intercourse means, then however diligently you use your dictionaries, all you will learn [is] that it's some sort of activity involving contact between, or penetration of, vaginas by penises.

    I'm sort of retreading ground covered by Nick Lamb, but I'm not sure what is missing from this definition. I suppose we could have a dissertation on the reproductive process, but then we'd need an additional explanation of non-reproductive sex, possibly covering birth control.

    And that's just biology – maybe John Cowan wants a social-anthropological description?

    Before calling for such additions, though, we should recall that these are dictionaries, not encyclopedias. As Nick Lamb said, "I don't think this definition leaves a lot to the imagination for human readers, who presumably have considerable experience of owning either a penis or a vagina."

  22. Quintesse said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 2:44 am

    I agree with Timothy Martin as well, as a non-native English speaker I can "feel" the intensity of the word fuck when it is used but I hardly ever think about its actual meaning. But I also wanted to add that in my own language, Dutch, there are several examples of swear words where it's original "dirty" meaning has been lost to most people. One of those is "trut" which would be like saying "cunt" but most people don't know that, but use it when our grandmother is around and she might turn red in rage/shame because her grandchild is using such language. While another is "klerelijer", which you could translate as "a sufferer of …." well of what? Cholera as it turns out. They're not the most offensive words in the language so maybe there's something to the idea that words lose (some of) their meaning when their original "dirty" aspect has been lost, but they definitely don't lose their "raison d'etre"!

  23. ajay said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 7:28 am

    "Bloody"?

  24. gordonoz said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 7:52 am

    I remember a cartoon many years ago which showed a minister or vicar walking from under a ladder from which a builder had dropped a brick on the vicar's head. The vicar was looking up in anger, rubbing the throbbing lump on his head and saying `Silly billy!'. What was funny was the fact that even a vicar in these circumstances would have said something in a much more obscene or blasphemous register. What would Billy Graham or the Pope say if he hit his thumb with a hammer, and might it be a linguistic reflex or a statement about sex or theology?

  25. Catanea said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 8:27 am

    I can remember when the word "goober" existed only in folksongs about peanuts; until one day I observed it occurring in the language of young children to replace "booger" which was really deemed too disgusting to say. Slightly later, the word "zit" rose to provide a solution for adolescents revolted by the word "pimple". I observed these words being imported into my linguistic communities (Washington State); and tho' I cannot now name the kids in question, I'm pretty sure they had recently been on holidays to the south, so I had the idea these strange words came from California. "Fuck" &c. were less lightly used, among children in "those days" – 1950s & early '60s.

  26. Mark Gould said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 8:35 am

    Quintesse's comments as a non-native speaker of English are particularly interesting. My impression from hearing Dutch, French, German, Italian and Danish people swearing in English is that although they understand the meaning (and sometimes the aggression) of the words they use, there is still a cultural element missing. As a result they are much more comfortable swearing in English than in their native language.

    This was brought home to me when a Danish friend taught me the phrase "perverse fisse" which I later used to describe someone. (For non-Danish speakers, the word "perverse" corresponds well to its English homologue, and "fisse" appears to correspond to the Dutch "trut".) As is clear from the fact that I can't bring myself to type the English translation for "fisse", I would clearly not have used the equivalent English phrase instead of the Danish one. However, what surprised me was that my Danish friend, who swore in English as freely as Giles Coren, was shocked by hearing me use the Danish demotic.

  27. CIngram99 said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 11:40 am

    John Cowan

    Surely all dictionary definitions are recursive. A while ago, writing an article on different types of truth, I decided to begin by quoting a few major dictionaries' definitions of it (I get paid by the word). They tell you nothing unless you already know what it means (which we all think we do…), but all words must, in the end, be defined in terms of other words, and so on.
    The way to avoid recursion is, of course, to use pictures, an excellent solution in this case, I think.

  28. Bloix said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 11:52 am

    "bloody" and "bleeding" of course refer to Christ on the cross. In my experience they are quite offensive in Britain and one wouldn't say them in polite company.

    The most unusual curse word that I've ever actually heard uttered is "tabernac!" (tabernacle), used as an interjection in Quebec. Amazingly, it's genuinely very offensive. (A tabernacle is an ornate container, made of precious metal, that holds the consecrated host in a Catholic church, so to swear on it is to swear on the transubstantiated body of Christ.)

  29. Arnold Zwicky said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 12:02 pm

    To Bloix: see Roger Shuy's posting here on "Oh tabernacle! What the wafer!".

  30. Arnold Zwicky said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 12:22 pm

    David Kidd: "And we also first learn about dirty words without learning their meaning. We learn the rhetorical force, and the social significances, of the words before we care about their meaning."

    An important point, I think. In fact, in my experience, kids first learn that the words convey strong emotion, and then they learn that the words are not to be used in certain circumstances (and are to be used in others). Eventually, they might (or might not) connect these uses of the words to other uses that have sexual, excretory, religious, etc. content. The historical primacy of these other uses is pretty much irrelevant to these kids.

  31. Mary Kuhner said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

    Two examples from my own (West Coast US) experience:

    "Bloody" is a modestly intense swear-word for me–I probably picked it up from reading British fiction–but totally dissociated from its meaning. "God's blood" wouldn't come across as a swear-word at all, it's just quaint. So the word is, as far as I can tell, totally dissociated from its origin for me.

    "Cunt" is a word I would use, in some registers, to describe the female genitalia; it goes in the same register as "cock" or "prick" for the male. I know intellectually that this is a very dirty word in Britain, but for me, no. And yet it's *clearly* a sexual term, and a crude one in the sense of not being usable in a formal or polite register.

    So I see zero evidence in my own use that the force of a swear-word comes from its origin. I see the taboo meaning as a separate meaning, perhaps etymologically related, but not derived from the literal meaning. After all, "sex" is not so dirty a word as "fuck" even though it is unequivocally equally sexual.

    Mary Kuhner

  32. Brett Dunbar said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

    Bloody as a swear word is pretty much a pure intensifier. Its originating phrase has basically been forgotten and indeed the wikipedia article indicates that it is fairly uncertain. According to a survey by the Advertising Standards Authority it is one of the mildest swear words 27th out of 28, only God was weaker. Cunt on the other hand is the strongest, fuck is the third strongest (motherfucker was second). The ASA survey results are in the report available at http://www.asa.org.uk/NR/rdonlyres/1EAEACA7-8322-4C86-AAC2-4261551F57FE/0/ASA_Delete_Expletives_Dec_2000.pdf

  33. Dave D said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 3:10 pm

    The American television program NYPD Blue which premiered in the 1990s had the goal of breaking various taboos on broadcast television and shocking various sensibilities. But the show was still subject to some degree of network censorship, so there were limits on how much gritty realism the characters could show. The main character, Det. Andy Sipowicz, cursed constantly, but only the degree allowed by the show's slightly more relaxed standards.

    He commonly referred to various lowlife characters as "scumbags". What always struck me watching the show was that the censors must not have known the meaning of the word, or expected most viewers to not know the meaning of the word, making it a more acceptable substitute for other impermissible swear words. They seemed to treat "scumbag" as merely a more intense form of "scum", which has been a mild invective like "lowlife" since the 16th century. But scumbag actually means "(used) condom".

    So is scumbag simply a word with sexual connotations that people use without knowing the connotations, or is it a word that is considered slightly more acceptable and less intensive precisely because most people don't recognize the connotations?

  34. MJ said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 4:21 pm

    I'm with the group of people who think that literal meaning has nothing to do with the taboo nature of swear words. A lot of the points have already been made, but here's two more:

    (1) 'fuck' is worse than 'bang' or 'do' but (in the relevant senses) they mean the same thing. If force derived from the taboo nature of the subject matter, this difference in force would be inexplicable.

    (2) It's plausible to think that the n-word has as its literal meaning 'black person'. There's nothing taboo about black people. But one doesn't use the word.

    I think there's just a list of Bad Words. One doesn't say them. Things got on the list originally for various reasons, but those reasons are irrelevant to their listed status.

  35. Blake Stacey said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 6:33 pm

    I was thinking about this while walking to work today, and it struck me that fucking can be used as an intensifier with an approving connotation even when the speaker has cultural attitudes which one might describe as "sex-negative". The examples I gave earlier,

    "That's one sweet fucking hybrid car," or "I've met some smart people in my day, but she is a fucking brilliant physicist."

    could come from the lips of a sushi-eating, xkcd-reading East Coast intellectual (those decadent bastards). Contrariwise, it's not so hard to imagine examples of, e.g., "fuckin' awesome" being used by a person who thinks homosexuality is a lifestyle choice of sin and believes that sex can only be legitimized by marriage or at least monogamy ("Todd Palin rides a pretty fuckin' awesome snowmobile"). So, I don't think positive uses of fucking say very much about the attitudes the speaker has toward sex.

  36. Geoff Nunberg said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 7:46 pm

    There are a lot of very interesting comments here and I wanted to make just a couple of points. Several people have suggested that the connotations of expletive fucking etc. owe nothing to its connection to a literal meaning, noting — correctly, surely — that kids learn these words first as expletives. But we should bear in mind that kids first learn this connection not as it affects "grown up" expletives, but their own taboo vocabulary. (I think of the Flanders and Swann song, "Ma's out, Pa's out, let's talk rude — Pee, Poo, Belly, Bum, Drawers.") I can recall the delight my four-year-old daughter took in saying "shamPOO," for example — by then she already understood the way the taboo literal meaning of a word contaminates its form. And I think it's only under the assumption that such a connection exists (even if we don't initially or even ultimately know the literal meaning of a word) that it can become naughty, and not simply aggressive, emphatic or whatever. One consequence of this assumption, by the way, is that it entails that there couldn't be a monosemous expletive that counted as a bad or "rude" or dirty word — e.g., a naughty word bliddy which was used only emphatically ("Pardon my French, but get your bliddy car out of my driveway!") and which speakers assumed had no other descriptive use to refer to something sexual, scatological, religious, or whatever that might be the object of a taboo, even if they didn't exactly know what it was. (Or equivalently, that it wasn't a disguised or denatured variant of such an item.) Or in other words, naughtiness can't arise out of the semantic ether.

    MJ is right to say that the denotations of words alone don't explain their taboo status, which is why I said in the post: "And what could be the original source of that taint if not the word's literal denotation (or at least, of its denotation relative to the attitudes that obscene words presuppose about sex and the body)?" But it's a mistake to go on to say that "literal meaning has nothing to do with the taboo nature of swear words." The fact is that independent of derived or figurative senses, two words that denote the same thing can have different degrees of taboo associated with them. Again, this is something we learn early on: for a four-year-old, poop is naughty but BM isn't. You could explain this in terms of a difference in register (or what passes for register in the toddler's mind) as a place-holder for a more complicated story about the difference between these words. But only someone at a very great remove from the toddler's world could conclude from this observation that the naughtiness of poop has nothing to do with what it refers to. And the difference in the taboo status of the words as literally used is inherited by their figurative extensions and homonyms.

  37. Patrick King said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 7:59 pm

    An article in the 7 November Globe & Mail (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20081107.wcurse07/BNStory/National/) notes that a Quebec judge has ruled on the matter of swear words:

    "While generally recognized as wrong, impolite and coarse, the words 'fuck you' do not at all constitute a blasphemy, since a blasphemy by definition invokes God or sacred things," Judge Pierre Bouchard said.

  38. Forrest said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 8:27 pm

    I have to disagree with Rubin ( "Fuck is a dirty word because you have to be naked to do it." ) unless there are different meanings of "naked."

    Whenever Jon Stewart introduces "The Best F*cking News Team, Ever" I don't think he's referring to sex … although, like you point out, he's breaking the spell.

  39. David Harmon said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 10:44 pm

    Gretchen @ November 6, 2008 @ 5:18 p:m says: "'Fuck' is useful not only because it denotes sexual activity, but because it connotes a certain attitude toward that activity. People who are having sex because they have some kind of positive relationship usually pick another expression to describe their activities."

    I beg to differ — and I suspect this may well be a generational difference. (I have no indication how old Gretchen is, but this comment makes me suspect she's got a few years on my 42.) However, even within a relationship, it's still an intensifier by way of the transgressive aspect — that is, "talking dirty". (Someone might want to ask Greta Christina or another sex-blogger about that.)

    My suspicion is that such words *originally* derive their force from literal meanings, but then can become detached from their origins. Such a "detached obscenity" will *usually* lose force over time, as is currently happening with "suck". Even in my youth, "suck" had lost much of its force, and the current "kids" (college and younger ;-) ) use it more casually than I ever did. Meanwhile, folks of my parents' generation are still quite bothered by it….

    I'm inclined to think that "bloody" in the UK is an exception, and to wonder why. (Perhaps it took a "recharge" from historical events, or some prominent but profane celebrity?)

  40. David Harmon said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 11:02 pm

    Also:

    Bill Walderman at November 6, 2008 @ 11:19 pm said: "Is anyone else old enough to remember this as an undergraduate?" ("Quang" discusses the grammatical forms related to "fuck you").

    I might well have seen it then, but don't remember it directly. What I do remember is a distinctly contrasting usage from a mailing list of the time: the "Fuck me HARDER!" complex, as described in the infamous Jargon File. These do not meet the grammatical conditions for "Quang's" fuck(2), but are clearly meant to be utterances rather than actual imperatives.

  41. Huntington said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 9:34 pm

    Also, too (pace Gov. Palin):

    1. Ditto those above who learned to use "douchebag" as an insult long before knowing the literal meaning. Same with "retarded" and "gay".

    2. Speaking of "retarded," it seems like another instance, like "suck," of the younger generation seeing as strong a connotation as in previous decades. Wonderful blogs like Wonkette use it a lot, and it's somehow not offensive; however, I just can't bring myself to follow their lead. (I'm 39.)

    2. Speaking of "gay," which I am, one of the problems with some of the literal definitions of "fucking" and "sexual intercourse" mentioned above is the whole penis/vagina thing. Just sayin'… and suddenly we're in Team America territory. Fuck yeah!

  42. Nathan Myers said,

    November 10, 2008 @ 12:55 am

    I would take it one step further: the undefined word "fuck" is proscribed to kids as a mechanism of social control, to help program them, for when they get older, to think of fucking itself as taboo. Likewise most other taboo words; "nigger" is newly taboo because racial bigotry is now taboo.

    I imagine that as atheism gets more prevalent (e.g. a few atheists run for office and come close to winning) there will be epithets, and eventually, someday, a taboo against those.

  43. Chris said,

    November 10, 2008 @ 11:00 am

    Actually, there's already an (openly) atheist congressman; and like homosexuality, atheism isn't written on your face, so there may be other closet atheists.

    There's no need to invent an epithet, though; in the right parts of the country, "atheist" and "godless" work just fine as they are. Or maybe not; ask Elizabeth Dole. :)

    But I don't think there's a sufficient number of people who disapprove of the epithets (or the idea of attacking atheists in a bigoted way) to render them taboo – it'd be far more of an uphill struggle than taboo-ing the use of "retarded" or "gay" as generalized terms of disapproval.

  44. Bloix said,

    November 10, 2008 @ 11:53 am

    But junior high schoolers do use "gay" in precisely the same way that, a generation ago, they said "queer." And "retarded" (meaning 'delayed') was introduced as a euphemism for "idiot" and "imbecile," words that are nowadays never used literally.

  45. Nathan Myers said,

    November 10, 2008 @ 12:33 pm

    Chris: for "godless" (or whatever venomous word comes to replace it) to become taboo, hatred of atheists would itself have to become taboo. We're very, very far from that point.

    In any case, the sequence stands; societally, the activity becomes taboo and then the words; personally, it's the words and then the activity.

  46. Bev Rowe said,

    November 10, 2008 @ 1:21 pm

    It is not universally true but often the case that using the heavy swear words is something that occurs within, and helps to re-inforce, peer groups (defined in the widest sense). I have noted children using strong language but not in front of their parents while the same parents were using it but not in front of these same children. Telling dirty stories , even those not including strong language, often has a similar social dimentsion.

    Going back to the start if this thread, even if fucking sometimes gets separated from its base meaning, I cannot believe anyone uses cunt without being aware of its sexual connotations.

    As for foreigners, they certainly do use words insappropriately before learning thier correct register. Or am I just going by anecdotal evidence?

    (I hope no one has already said this better)

  47. David Halsted said,

    November 10, 2008 @ 3:39 pm

    I seldom hear anyone say "Damn it!" or "Go to hell!" nowadays, and when I do it sounds mealy-mouthed.

    Perhaps in the Bible Belt the words damn and hell retain their force, but they seem to be fading away.

  48. Martin said,

    November 16, 2008 @ 4:19 pm

    A bold move it is, ending an article in parentheses; I give it an emphatic "fuck yeah!"

  49. Lee Klinger said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 10:55 pm

    In "Dragons of Eden," Carl Sagan made an interesting speculation about the connection between "fuck" and dominance mounting among nonhuman primates. "Fuck you," in this interpretation, contains an understood "I," as in "I am dominant. Assume the position!" Dominance mounting occurs between nonhuman primates of the same sex and is used to reinforce positions in the social hierarchy.

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