If you’ve read the articles on this site, you’ve noticed the concerted effort we’ve made to abstain from using lewd language. As a former potty mouth, I’ve tried to abstain from using such language for decades. It’s not entirely borne of morality, as we note below, but a challenge to illuminate, entertain, and provoke thought without the punctuation that swearing provides.
We also want to control our language around our kids, and to do so we need to replace the words that intensify our emotions, move our audience in an offensive way, convey utter disdain, and inform the world that we have painful bobos we normally use. After years of trying to invent my own swear words, it dawned on me that most words won’t do. Most words do not provide necessary punctuation. We need trashy sounding words that provoke and offend. We need to find pleasingly offensive words. The words should lead an observer to believe we are being offensive before the confusion sets in. The words have to be said with anger, disgust, or whatever emotion we deem specific to punctuate that situation and cause everyone within earshot a reaction. To arrive at a suitable replacement, we need to study the great, irreplaceable swear words our ancestors passed down to us.
The first shocking nugget we discover, when we study the history of profanity for the purpose of replacing it, is that most of these words are much older than we thought. Swear words carry a certain level of narcissistic vanity that suggest these words are our generation’s way of overturning the table before us. We use profanity to shock and offend our authority figures, and we want unique, liberating, and fresh words our parents have never heard before. Check that, we know they’ve probably heard them before, but they’ve never heard us say them, like this … These words help us inform our authority figures that we reject everything they stand for and believe. We might understand that their provocative nature contains evergreen qualities, but doesn’t the idea that our grandparents knew them, and probably used them in the same shocking, offensive nature dilute their power? That bomb you just dropped on your mom to express your intense rebellion against her matriarchal constructs was probably the same word she used against her mother to try to accomplish the same thing. When we attempt to shock her with provocative, offensive words, we are just carrying on a fairly recent tradition.
The next thing we discover, when we try to find new offensive words, is that our ancestors knew what they were doing when they chose those offensive, therapeutic, and therapeutically offensive words. For some reason, using hard consonant, such as a hard (‘F’), an enunciated (‘T’), or the unpleasant (‘K’), sounds work surprisingly well. It just feels a little better to yell a word that begins with a hard (‘F’) and is punctuated with a hard (‘K’) when we accidentally strike our index finger with a hammer. We also discover some of their medicinal benefits, when we call a lover who dumps us that word. It feels so good that we tell our friends what we called our ex-, so they know what we hit our former lover with on our way out. Calling them this word is viewed as retribution for everything they did to us, and our friends give us five.
No matter how we feel about these words, there is a need for us to express ourselves, particularly when we’ve been expressing anger, intent, and humor with these words for almost as long as they’ve been alive. If we are going to try to replace them for the benefit of impressionable young ears, we also have to remember the iconography we’ve built around them.
Most of us don’t remember where we heard our first swear word, but we can remember hearing them at their best. We recall movie scenes when cool, attractive actors said something awful to punctuate their acts of violence, and how those cool and memorable the words punctuated those scenes. We remember when we told the perfect joke that required the punctuation of a swear word. We learned how to perfect the tone of that word, and when we did, we noticed how it upgraded a relatively adequate joke to great. Some jokes, and or stories, don’t feel complete without quality swear words peppered throughout, particularly in the punch line. We develop a personal history with these words that is so intimate they’re almost familial. If we feel a need to replace them how would we do it without relying too much on the tried and tested models?
When we used the big one around our primary authority figure, we felt a peculiar sensation. That sensation was power. It proved a little uncomfortable and a little necessary at the same time. We paused after saying it to provide maximum impact, and we dealt with the ramifications with a small smile. We made an announcement by violating their ultimate taboo, “We don’t care anymore. We’re no longer children. We now have these words in our arsenal, and we’re not afraid to use them.” We learned that strategic use of profanity can turn a period into an exclamation point. We also learned how to use tones, rhythms, and stresses for maximum effect. We also learned the proper facial expression to wear when delivering a haymaker to rattle our ancestors down to their foundation. We learned how to convey emotions early on, but when no one took us seriously, until we learned how to articulate it with swears!
After we discovered how to use these words properly, we discovered that using profanity requires balance. When our goal is displaying a rebellious truth, too much energy and too much intent can shift the balance of power in such a way that dilutes our meaning. When we swear, we hope to vent, as opposed to internalize our anger, but doing so too often can lead to laughter, as it shows the profane character might not have the confidence to know when and how to use profanity properly. If swearing provides excellent punctuation, in other words, excessive punctuation can lead to a clumsy presentation. The power of profanity, we find, comes with great responsibility. Excessive profanity can also lead the audience to believe the speaker is profane, and thereby unable to properly express themselves due to a lack of quality education. By using swear words, we hope to shock and offend, but excessive swearing can reveal our intent and diminish it.
This takes us to a term someone else developed called the dysphemism treadmill? The dysphemism treadmill suggests that what might be considered profane in one frame will eventually become common place. The treadmill refers to idea that we all went through a point in our lives when we considered these words offensive and taboo but overuse eventually led us to view them as more commonplace. The previous generation went through this loop, and the next one will too.
I didn’t know there was a term for it, but I know it when I see it. I hear about it too. When I’m watching a show, with my son trying to sleep in the backroom, he tells me everything he heard on the television show I was watching the next day. I don’t hear it anymore. It goes in one ear and out the other. It’s such an accepted norm to me now that I don’t know if I still consider using offensive language a question of morality anymore, but I do not want my young son to hear such language coming from me.
“And I think we both know, there’s nothing I can do about that,” I reply. “I can only control what I can control. I cannot control what he hears at school, or among his friends. I have some control over the shows he watches, but I recognize the limits there too. I can only control what I can control, and as his primary influence in life, I can control my language when I’m around him. When his friends say them, it’s funny, naughty and rebellious. When parents say them, however, it leads to a premature commonplace on his treadmill, and he’ll use those words accordingly. I also think language is a staple of youth, and by cleaning up my language when I’m around him, it might help make some elements of his youth last just a little bit longer. My meager efforts in this regard might be so relative as to be insignificant, but as they they say every little bit helps.”
Those who study the origin of words suggest that some of the words, most famously listed in George Carlin’s Seven Words you can Never say on Television, are at least hundreds of years old. They question whether these words had the profane power they do in the modern era, but they state that the words are lot older than most would believe. My guess is that this study was put forth to suggest that these words aren’t that bad, and I would flip that around and say, “Words contain no power, until we provide them meaning, but these words are our go-to when we’re trying to be offensive, or we’re trying to define for others just how extremely angry, frustrated, sad, and happy we are. Why are they our go-to words if they aren’t that bad?” When they suggest that they didn’t have the same power hundreds of years ago, in Chaucer’s or Shakespeare’s day, I cede that notion, but they’re currently as powerful as they were in the 60’s and 70’s when standup comedian Lenny Bruce was getting arrested for saying them on stage, and when George Carlin wrote the Seven Words you can Never say on Television. Did my great-grandpa use one of these words when he hammered a finger, probably not, but after the 60’s and 70’s assigned them the taboo nature they have today, we use the, accordingly. So, the modern young people who want to carry on the tradition of burning everything that came before them to prepare the world for their new generation are probably using the same naughty words that their grandmothers and grandfathers, from the 60’s and 70’s used in similar situations.
Put in that frame, it’s noteworthy that no generation, after the mid 60’s to the early 70’s generation, took that level of profanity to another level. Those who used foul language in the Carlin/Bruce generation expressed themselves in a radical manner. Audiences walked out of their shows aghast and shocked at the profanity they used in their shows, does that still happen? Young people and teenagers might still be fascinated with offensive language, but adults are on the commonplace portion of the treadmill. They don’t leave these shows, they aren’t offended anymore, and if they’re in the same place I am in hearing these words, they don’t even hear it anymore. We’ve obliterated these taboos so often that the trend in modern comedic movies moved to swearing in front of children. When that lost some of its taboo cachet, the movies moved to having the children swear.
Bruce and Carlin not only expressed themselves with profanity regardless what “the man” said, but they fought any and all censorship of expression, and they faced legal consequences for doing so. Some might call them trailblazers, but when that generation crossed the Rubicon of thirty years of age, and they became parents, why did the next generation follow the trail they blazed? Most generations speak of torching the trail of the previous generation, to build a new one, rather than follow it obediently. Why did the successive generations copy then option these particular words for future use?
Is using profanity such a revolutionary concept that its revolutionary ingredients are evergreen and somehow immune to change? If an enterprising social critic started such a revolution, would they be laughed out of the building? How could anyone update such concepts? What words would they use to better, or uniquely, describe lewd activities and disgusting bodily functions without being subject to ridicule? It would be an almost impossible chore, but the one thing we love about enterprising young souls is their ability to make the impossible possible.
The avenue to doing it in such a way that reaches young people, now, would be through YouTube. This enterprising young soul would need to enlist the services of an influencer on YouTube, and the enterpriser would probably have to pay the influencer a handsome sum.
The first question the two of them would have to answer is why do it? Is there some financial reward for changing the language in this manner? The second question would be why do it? Curse words are beloved in their own way, and they’re familiar. If we are going to revamp, revolutionize, or just tweak the lewd lexicon, we better prepare for the backlash.
“I’m not giving up on my swear words that easily,” a YouTube commentor, named Smurfette’s Rainbow, adds. “They’ve served me well in moments of frustration and angst, and they have managed to make some of my otherwise lame jokes pretty (expletive deleted) funny.”
If the enterpriser and the influencer want to provide proper alternatives, they’ll need to understand the science of swear words. Among the many things they find will be the psychologically pleasing, offensive qualities of certain hard consonants. The hard (‘F’) is the most obvious consonant to use, but they would also have to incorporate hard (‘T’s) and (‘K’s) in their new words.
“The best swear words I’ve found have hard consonants,” the influencer might say, soon after he lays out his mission in the intro. “Spraken ze Deutch (German for do you speak German?), for example, is one of my favorites. After listening to German friends of mine speak, I realized that many German phrases will make great cuss words, because almost all German phrases have hard consonants. Try it out the next time you drive a hammer into your thumb. Spraken ze Deutch. There are probably too many syllables for required punctuation, but I think you’ll find using it in some context quite therapeutic.”
“My friends simply won’t accept any of the alternatives you’ve listed here,” Tripping the Light Fantastic writes, “and I don’t care how many hard consonants you mix in. Our reputations are on the line here fella. Why don’t you go mess with someone else’s vocab (insert influencer’s name). We got nothing for you here.”
“How are we supposed to tone these words?” a third, somewhat eager commentator, named Fertilizer Spike, asks. “You provide us some situations, and I appreciate that, but we need more situations, so our tones suit the situation better. I’m all for introducing a new paradigm, through a new set of swear words that describe reproduction, our reproductive organs, and the movement of our bowels, but you have to remember how many years of practice it took us to learn how to tone the more traditional swear words properly.”
“You’re right Fertilizer Spikes,” Uncle Shemp agrees, “swearing isn’t innate. It’s learned behavior, and our influencer here doesn’t seem to recognize that.”
As with all efforts of this sort, the first influencer and their young enterpriser would probably fail, as its audience might view it as some sort of spoof ridiculousness. The second enterprising young entrepreneur might try to develop some show on radio, or some channel, or app to which an older generation might tune into. The second entrepreneur would recognize the error of the first and target the older demographic. If they could convince this older audience to convince their children that these new, alternative words are the “new words you cannot say” they might make some inroads. What if this plank of their movement started out as a joke, and it accidentally caught on? What if the next generation believed their parents were genuinely forbidding them to say something like “Funderbunk! or Funnel cakes” when they hammer their finger? Let the revolution begin!
The first answer to “Why do it?” can be answered by typing the word of choice in a search engine and adding the words how old is it? Once we learn that these words were probably used by famous radio broadcasters, before the advent of TV, doesn’t that characterize future use of them as something of a redundant excercise? If we’re trying to carve out an identity separate from our parents, and that is pretty much the primary goal of every teen, why do we use their language to do so? Are we attempting to insult them on a familiar level? What provides more shock familiarity or confusion? If their music makes our skin crawl, and the sight of butter brickle ice cream and those little neopolitan ice cream bars makes us gag, because they remind us of our parents, why don’t their swears have the same effect on us? We want to do everything different from our parents when we’re young, and we consider our grandparents so irrelevant that they’re not even worth rebelling against. Yet we still use the same swear words as the generation that only had three channels on black and white TVs. When we’re brand new adults, and we’re dying to break the shackles of the matriarchal and patriarchal constructs that confine us, why are we still using the same offensive words to shock our ancestors with the same taboo language that they used to shock theirs?