2-81. Defending Profanity


Words are powerful, but why do we have some words that are taboo or bad?

Think about this for a second. There are some words that are illegal to utter on broadcast television. It’s like we think we’ll summon Voldemort if certain sounds are incanted. Bloody Mary! Bloody Mary! Bloody Mary! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Candyman! Candyman! Candyman!

I’m sorry if some unwanted entity has just appeared in your presence.

In the beginning, profanity was language that was irreverent towards religion. In other cases, culture has deemed another culture’s terms for bodily functions “vulgar,” which ironically means “common.”

And if there’s one thing that’s true about these “bad words,” it’s that they change all the time.

1939’s Gone With the Wind had the word “Damn” uttered in the final scene. While this wasn’t the first utterance of “profanity” in a film, it was the first found in such a successful film. And contrary to popular belief, this wasn’t illegal at the time. The Production Code was modified just a month earlier. And I just have to read this paragraph from the code to illustrate how silly the concept of profanity is:

No approval by the Production Code Administration shall be given to the use of words and phrases in motion pictures, including, but not limited to, the following:

Alley cat (applied to a woman); bat (applied to a woman); broad (applied to a woman); Bronx cheer (the sound); chippie; cocotte; God, Lord, Jesus, Christ (unless used reverently); cripes; fanny; fairy (in a vulgar sense); finger (the); fire, cries of; Gawd; goose (in a vulgar sense); “hold your hat” or “hats”; hot (applied to a woman); “in your hat”; Louse; lousy; Madam (relating to prostitution); nance, nerts; nuts (except when meaning crazy); pansy, razzberry (the sound); slut (applied to a woman); S.O.B.; son-of-a; tart; toilet gags; tom cat (applied to a man); traveling salesman and farmer’s daughter jokes; whore; damn, hell (excepting when the use of said last two words shall be essential and required for portrayal, in proper historical context, of any scene or dialogue based upon historical fact or folklore, or for the presentations in proper literary context of a Biblical, or other religious quotation, or a quotation from a literary work provided that no such use shall be permitted which is intrinsically objectionable or offends good taste).

For those, like me, who didn’t know what a cocotte is, the dictionary provides that it is a covered, heatproof dish such as a Dutch oven. Oh, and it’s also an old term for a fashionable prostitute.

So, if I were making a movie in the 1930s, and this dialogue appeared in it, I’d be fined to oblivion.

For years my argument has been, words are just sounds; it’s the meanings that matter. The only difference there should be between the words “piss” and “urine” are that you save a letter by using the word “piss.”

I thought my argument unassailable, until my co-hosts on an upcoming College of Curiosity podcast pointed something out to me.

One of them is a writer and the other a pipe fitter, and they both agree that we need taboo words to better express ourselves. After a moment’s consideration, I realized they were right.

If someone says “move the box,” they’ll never be able to match the power of “move the damn box!” or something stronger. My idea of removing the taboo of words would eliminate some of our ability to express ourselves, and I can’t see that as a good thing. And thus my opinion has changed. Some words should be reserved for use in situations that require a power boost.

And though I don’t agree with censorship of the arts, our current code that prohibits certain words on television enhances the power of these words. I’m still against it, but I concede that it makes our language richer.

So fuck it, I was wrong.

Parents should not listen to this.

Parents should not listen to this.


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