As a former potty mouth who is trying to control the language I use around my child, I’m always on the lookout for alternatives to convey disdain, intensify intent, and inform the world that I have a bobo. After years of trying to invent my own swear words, I realized that we can’t just fill in the blank. The words have to have a trashy feel, a certain sound, and an overall aura about them that we find pleasingly offensive. 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 the situation if we want to achieve the proper reaction. To accomplish all that, a study of the great swear words our ancestors passed down to us might be necessary.
The first shocking element we discover, when we study profanity for the purpose of replacing it, is that these words are a lot older than we thought. When we use profanity to shock and offend our parents, we want unique, liberating and fresh words our parents have never heard them before. Check that, we know they’ve heard them before, but they’ve never heard us say them, like this … Yet, some of these words are at least hundreds of years old, and their provocative, offensive nature have an evergreen quality about them. So, 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.
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 offensive, therapeutic, and therapeutically offensive words. For some reason, using hard consonants, such as the hard (‘F’), the (‘T’), or the (‘K’) works 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 one of them. It feels so good that we tell our friends what we called our ex- to let them know what we hit our former lover with on our way out.
The problem for former potty mouths, who want to cut back, is that we need to replace these words. No matter how we feel about them, there is a need for adults to express themselves, particularly when they’ve been expressing their anger, intent, and humor with these words for as long as they’ve been adults. If we are going to try to replace them for the benefit of impressionable young ears, we have to remember the iconography we’ve built around them.
We don’t know where we heard them first, but we can all remember hearing them at their best. We recall movie scenes when cool, attractive actors said something awful things to punctuate acts of violence, and how those words made the scenes just a little better and a little more memorable. We remember when we told the perfect joke that required us dropping a swear word, with a certain tone, and how it upgraded the joke from adequate to great. Some jokes just don’t feel complete without a few swear words peppered in. We develop a personal history with these words that is so intimate they’re almost familial. If we want to replace these words, how would we do it without relying too much on the tried and tested models?
We’ve also used these words, provided by our ancestors, to inform our ancestors that we’ve arrived. “We’re no longer children. We now have curse 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 the tones, rhythms, and stresses we should use for maximum effect, and we learned the proper facial expression to wear when we’re delivering a haymaker to rattle our audience down to their foundation. We learned how to convey emotions early on, but no one took us seriously, until we learned how to punctuate them with curse words!
After we discovered how to use them properly, we discovered that using profanity requires a carefully weighted 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 their 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 where 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 about it the next day. He says he could hear the profanity that the characters were using in the shows I was watching. I don’t even 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.
“Well, he’s gonna hear it somewhere,” people reflexively say whenever this issue comes up.
“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 some limits there too. I can only control what I can control, and as his primary influence, 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 makes them prematurely commonplace on his treadmill, and he’ll say 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 bit longer.”
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, “If they’re not that bad, why do we use them as if they are. Why are they our go-to words when we’re feeling extremely mad or frustrated?” 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. 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 used in similar situations.
Put in that frame, it’s noteworthy that no generation, since the late 60’s/early 70’s generation took profanity to another level. Those who used foul language in the Carlin/Bruce generation expressed themselves in a radical fashion. They 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-old, 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 co-opt and copy these words?
Is using profanity such a revolutionary concept that its revolutionary ingredients are evergreen and 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 would 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 the friends of mine who can speak German, 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. I think you’ll find it 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 Spikes, asks. “You provide us some situations, and I appreciate that, but we need more situations, so our tones suit the situation. 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 these 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.”
The influencer and the enterpriser would probably fail with the first generation of young people watching their broadcast, but what if they could convince this audience to convince their future children that these words are the “words you cannot say”? 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 honestly forbidding them to say something like “Funderbunk!” 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 are at least hundreds of years old, and that they have played a prominent role in rebellion for at least fifty years, doesn’t that characterize any future use as something of a redundant excercise? If we’re trying to carve out an identity separate from our parents, and that is pretty much our primary goal in the teen years, why do we use their language to do so? 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?