Have we always "sworn like sailors"? Has creative cursing developed because we can't just slug people when they make us angry? And if such verbal aggression is universal, why is it that some languages (Japanese, for instance) supposedly do not contain any nasty words? Throughout the twentieth century there seems to have been a dramatic escalation in the use and acceptance of offensive language in English, both verbally and in print. Today it seems almost commonplace to hear the "f" word in casual conversation, and even on television. Just how have we become such a bunch of cursers and what does it tell us about our language and ourselves?
In Expletive Deleted, linguist Ruth Wajnryb offers an entertaining yet thoroughly researched, lighthearted look at this development, seeking to reveal the etymologies of various terms and discover how what was once considered unfit-for-company argot has become standard fare. Wajnryb steps outside the confines of English in her search for answers, exploring whether offensive words in English are mirrored in other languages and examining cultural differences in the usage of dirty words. For instance, why is it that in some languages you can get away with intimating that a person and his camel are more than just good friends, while pouring scorn on a mother's morals guarantees you a seat on the next flight out?
An amusing and idiosyncratic look at the power of words to shock, offend, insult, amuse, exaggerate, let off steam, establish relationships, and communicate deep-felt emotions, Expletive Deleted is a must-read for anyone who loves language -- or has ever stubbed a toe.
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Ruth Wajnryb is an applied linguist, researcher, and writer. She has a weekly column in The Sydney Morning Herald in which she explores linguistic topics.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Until quite recently, swearing was a subject largely ignored by those who investigate the nature of language. Well, perhaps "ignored" is going too far. Let's say interest was lacking. Not a lot has changed since twelve years ago, when Timothy Jay, one of the few serious researchers in this field, wrote, "If all science on language stopped now, we would know very little about dirty word usage or how dirty word usage relates to more normal language use."
This lack of interest becomes glaringly obvious when you consider the massive amount of literature that has been generated analyzing discrete linguistic elements such as the past-tense inflection of "-ed" or present tense, third-person singular final "-s." While I'm happy to own up to my bias as an applied (that is, not pure) linguist, and while I'm loath to cast aspersions on other linguists' areas of expertise (we're a small academic community, and we have to live together peaceably), I need to ask here: Is there really any competition between swearing and the bits we put on the ends of verbs as topics for study? If you didn't vote for swearing, this is where you get off. Bus stops here!
The absence of research interest in swearing is itself intriguing. In 1975 the Australian linguist B. A. Taylor published a serious study of abusive language in the Australian context. He began his paper thus:
If English were...a Germanic language spoken in Northern Delaware, and particularly if it were the language of some indigenous tribe, it is pretty certain that some enterprising anthropologist would long since have recognised and described the subsystem of taboo language contained within it.
Taylor and I share a partiality to the anthropological device, for I frequently invoke the services of the Visiting Anthropologist from Mars. Taylor goes on to say that because En- glish is the language of most of the world's linguists, the subsystem of taboos on which swearing is based has been largely ignored or, where analyzed, undertaken in the spirit of fun, and not as a serious endeavor.
Nearly thirty years on, the situation has improved -- a little. Yet the fact remains that I don't need two hands to count the number of dedicated books on the subject. One explanation may be found in the sociolinguist Erving Goffman's reference to "the most conventionalized and perfunctory doings we engage in...[that] traditionally have been treated by students of modern society as part of the dust of social activity, empty and trivial -- routine formulae-fillers."
Others have commented on the academic avoidance of this domain of language. Australian researcher Angus Kidman treats as preposterous the notion that swearing is intuitively obvious and requires no further examination. He criticizes studies that treat swearing as nothing more than a linguistic category of words and fail to see that it is a culturally driven speech act. He claims that the very fact that different word labels are used in different varieties of English ("swearing" in Britain and Australia; both "swearing" and "cursing" in the United States) should tell us that we're not simply talking about an undifferentiated, invariant category of words.
Researcher Richard Dooling bemoans the lack of available access to the relevant literature:
The Library of Congress classification system does not provide a selection of books...on swearing or dirty words. A researcher...must travel to the BF of psychoanalysis, the PE of slang, the GT of anthropology, the P of literature and literary theory, the N of art, the RC of medical psychiatry and back to the B of religion and philosophy.
Such a disorderly journey around the library shelves provides Dooling with the evidence that words such as "shit" are "inextricably bound up with almost everything."
The fact that this area of research continues to be undervalued as an academic pursuit is itself meaningful. I'm not moved by the contention that, since most linguists alive today speak English as a native language, they are therefore blind to much of their language. If this were the case, how should we explain the fascination with the morphology of the English verb system? Rather, I suspect that the taboo overlying the language of swearing has so stigmatized the subject that academics are hesitant to soil their hands even by association. They may take the view that an interest in this domain is likely to attract the raised eyebrow. At a practical level, it may not be deemed a specialization likely to win the esteem of their research fellows, a sine qua non for most academics.
Copyright © 2005 by Ruth Wajnryb
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