The Function of Profanity in Modern English


I.B. Extended Essay

Fall, 1996




Table Of Contents .


Chapter 1- Introduction and Clarification

Chapter 2- Everyday Usage of Profanity

Chapter 3- How Profanity Offends

Chapter 4- A Look at the Literal Meanings and Taboo

Chapter 5- Phatic and Emotive Language

Chapter 6- The Employment of Substitutes

Chapter 7- A Brief Historical Perspective

Chapter 8- The Use of Profanity in the Media

Chapter 9- Conclusions

Bibliography







The Function of Profanity in Modern English

Chapter 1- Introduction and Clarification

Since the beginning of the English language, there have existed certain words that were considered by the majority to be taboo, or not to be spoken in polite discourse. Over the centuries, these words have changed, some disappearing from the language altogether and some simply taking on new meanings or functions. One wonders why, if these words were considered too rude to be spoken, they were ever used, and consequently, how they remained a fixture in a language known for its passing trends and short-lived fashions. Could it be that these words were, and are, essential for communication? Would the English language be as effective without these words? Are efforts to repress them futile? Does the popularization of such vocabulary create the need for new words with the same taboo status as the original words? To summarize: Does profanity serve a useful purpose in the English language?

In order to answer a question this complex, certain guidelines must be set. The word "profanity" has a long list of taboo words associated with it, not all of which can be accommodated within such a short study. It is therefore necessary to limit which words we consider. Since this is a study of modern English, the words should be representative of the kind of profanity used today. In his superb study "Swearing," Geoffrey Hughes said:

...A major shift has occurred in comparatively recent times in that a quite different emphasis has become dominant. The \'lower\' physical faculties of copulation, defecation and urination have come very much to the fore as referents in swearing.

Therefore it seems appropriate to choose a set of \'four-letter words\' in American English, known by american linguists as the "Big Six," which range from mildly to extremely taboo and also cover these \'contemporary\' topics in swearing. They are: fart, piss, shit, fuck, cock and cunt. The first two are of Anglo- Saxon origin and date from c.1000 and c.1250, respectively. Piss, however, is of Norman French origin and dates from c.1290. Fuck is a well-known word for sexual intercourse, and cock and cunt are slang, if not profane, terms for the male and female organs involved in this activity. All three are of unknown origin, and date from c.1500 for fuck and c.1400 for cock and cunt.

Unfortunately, we must also make an attempt at defining "useful purpose," even if it is impossible to come to a conclusion that will please everyone. A good question to ask here is: "What properties does a word with purpose have?" Most linguists would likely respond that a word does not have a purpose unless it has both a meaning and a grammatical place in a sentence, and some would probably want to include the use of the words as phatic and emotive expressions. How, though, do you ascertain when this purpose becomes a "useful purpose"? Can it be deemed useful merely by having a purpose at all? That question, fundamentally, presents the answer. One must consider the original purpose of language: to aid in transferring knowledge or ideas or even emotions from one person to another. Therefore, any word that assists in this transfer can be considered both useful and purposeful. It should be noted, however, that there are different degrees of usefulness. Our choice of words in communication indicates our preference of one word over another, revealing our belief that a certain word is more useful for communicating a certain idea than any other in our active vocabulary.

With these terms defined, it is now possible to rephrase a question in a way that facilitates a clear and equally defined response. The new question would look something like: Do the words fart, piss, shit, fuck, cock and cunt serve to aid in the transfer of ideas or information between people speaking