If you pass by a lady who is standing on a busy sidewalk and staring upwards, it probably doesn’t mean much. She might be stretching her neck or watching a butterfly. If you pass by a crowd of twenty people all avidly gazing upwards, it probably means that something is happening up there.
If one person invests in a crypto-currency it’s hardly worth noting, but if ten thousand do it’s a trend that should be understood. If three or four companies depart a high-tax state for one in which taxes are low, politicians might ignore it. But if hundreds move each year, it would be sheer folly for state leaders to ignore the trend.
If every individual picked his own profanity, swear word, or obscenity, there’d be little to discuss. But if millions of speakers over many centuries confine their verbal vulgarities to mostly three categories, discovering why could be valuable. It turns out that almost all dirty dialect and putrid patter revolve around the bathroom function of defecation, the sexual function of copulation, and God. I discuss a number of reasons for this in my audio CD on the topic, but I’d like to look at an additional explanation.
Looking first at excremental eloquence, why this particular form of human waste? Why don’t people say, “He needs the ear-wax beaten out of him”? Or, how about, “That air turbulence scared the saliva out of the pilot”? Or why not, “That politician is talking such nasal mucus”? I have never heard any driver say, “Oh urine! I took a wrong turn!” Of all human body waste, why does only excrement enjoy such common usage in ordinary conversation today?
Similarly, of all the many activities in which humans regularly engage, why is a succinct synonym for sexual intercourse so widely used as an expletive? This is so common that it is the rare Hollywood film that doesn’t bombard the ear with a fusillade of f-words.
Lastly, why does God feature so prominently in curses and insults? The fastidious Frasier Crane of the eponymous NBC sitcom, Frasier, would, in his frustration, frequently exclaim, “For the love of God!”. Why not, “For the love of rice” or “For the love of Jupiter”? Even those who insist He doesn’t exist can’t seem to stop themselves from using His name.
Civilization is nurtured by maintaining a distinction between public and private. That distinction helps sustain human dignity. For the most part, animals do not distinguish between public and private; only humans do. Society can survive a certain amount of wrong-doing in private but as soon as the reprehensible and destructive conduct becomes widely practiced in public, all is lost. Private homosexual behavior has always existed and was often tolerated but moving it into the public arena and clamoring for its public acceptance during the last years of the twentieth century changed everything. What people do in private impacts only themselves. But doing it in public encourages others and gradually obliterates standards.
While people prefer privacy for urination, or for that matter, cleaning their ears or picking their noses, when it comes to defecation they tend to insist upon it. Similarly, even passionate kissing in public usually evokes unease in bystanders; certainly, more intense sexual interplay calls for privacy. When I speak to God and ask His help in overcoming my failings it is a private interaction. When God speaks to me He indicates what He expects of me. If I were to tell others that God told me what they should do or not do, they would rightly feel some discomfort. Though we worship in congregations, we each cherish our own personal relationship with God and like any intimate relationship, its most important aspects are private.
Using these three private areas of human life as squalid conversational expletives helps to erase the distinction between public and private and makes the speaker feel bold and brave. He deludes himself that he is a heroic revolutionary tearing down artificial barriers to open and honest communication. The reality is that he is merely coarsening the culture and eroding the underpinnings of civilization.
24 thoughts on “Predictably Offensive”
This is an insightful read. My wife and I find watching movies frustrating because of the extensive use of the f- and s-word. I wonder if the lack of creativity in movie making has been replaced with these distasteful language?
As reader Don says, someone probably one of my high school teachers a long time ago, those who must constantly use profanity show a lack of vocabulary. About the use of God as a swear word. I once had an acquaintance who, a professed atheist constantly went around saying G- damn this or that. Now I am no saint and yes when circumstances called for an expletive I usually had one handy. That is before I had children. However back to my acquaintance, when I asked him why he was swearing by a God he didn’t believe in he had no answer. We just stood there looking at each other until we both broke out laughing. We then became closer friends and I never heard him use those words again.
I do believe that if we can do so without belittling people we believers can make a difference.
As always your devoted friend and follower,
I acquired your CD some years ago. I did not learn about God when I was a child, I am now 54. Your books, podcasts and all your teachings have help me greatly grow spiritually. I thank you for that. I am the oldest of twelve sisters and I would like to share with them the opportunity that I have of learning from this and other topics. My sisters are Spanish speakers. Do you have your teaching materials in Spanish?
One of our good intentions this year is making much material available in Spanish. We’d love for your eleven sisters to have our teachings of ancient Jewish wisdom.
We’ll keep you informed via our weekly emails.
excellent teaching …. the words “Jesus Christ” are also used in abundance as profanity by Jews and Gentiles alike.
Good point, Bob,
Sadly you are quite correct. I should have pointed this out and also, I neglected to say that a colloquial term for urine is also used in conversation. “That TSA official really ‘urined’ me off!!”
Oh well….we are living in a decaying culture
but shoulder-to-shoulder we try to slow the deterioration
Some people can’t stop using offensive words if their life depended on it. Wake up in the morning cursing and stay cursing until they retired at night. Another form of addiction I think.
It is, if not an addiction, at least a strongly ingrained habit. And habits are monumentally difficult to change.
Only you could write so eloquently about such a subject ! Thank you for your continual wisdom, coaching & writings .
Thank you for your kind words, Jeff,
Susan and I cherish your friendship,
Always valuable insight, Rabbi. Thank you. I have never been a conversational “Swearer” but lately I have tolerated it more in myself and recently wondered why. Thank you for the enlightment , and i am going to make an effort to back up and take a better track.
Well done, Margery!
We’re proud of you. Not everyone can recognize personal backsliding and even fewer can reverse it.
Bless you for your insights, Rabbi! I’m glad I found you. You are able to put into words what I know in my heart but can’t articulate on my own. I am a Christian, and your religion has a depth and richness that helps me understand my own much better. I bought your CD on the Perils of Profanity (among others) and highly recommend it.
Thank you James–
Few things bring us greater fulfillment than knowing that our work has been useful to someone. Your words encourage us.
Rabbi Lapin, I believe this is one of your best messages I have enjoyed reading. It clearly explains a topic that has mystified me. Please keep up your good work. Scott
Isn’t it just wonderful when we understand another aspect of how the world REALLY works?
Thank you, again ! Society does need help holding to higher standards. I am considering quiting a client because he deliberately blasphems when in my company. Who would believe cursing used as a weapon . I will make every effort not to stoop to such a low level. You saved the day again, Rabbi Lapin, Ha Shem bless you.
Thank you Maria-
You might consider possibly politely informing the client that his abuse of language makes it hard for you to enjoy working with him.
Susan and I appreciate your blessings,
Greetings Rabbi from a long time/part-time follower of your work. You might remember some years ago it was I whom admonished on the radio that you not eat whilst speaking (KSFO radio show many moons passed). 🙂
This is a wonderful explanation of the use of swear words you describe. I have had thoughts that touched on some of the aspects you speak of, but never the insight and clarity which you present here.
May I also suggest that at least for (2) of the most common words (relating to defecating and copulating), there is yet another (physical) reason they are employed so frequently: Impact. Not the auditory aspect of the impact per se, but the act of building up and releasing the force of said impact.
The use of the S-word and the F-word require certain mouth/tongue/teeth compression actions which rapidly build in the mouth like a pressure cooker, and when released – well, the obvious result. A ‘relief’ so to speak, but a pyrrhic one at best.
Every time we employ these words however, your wise advice rings true – a little chip binks off our culture and decorum, bringing us closer to the circling drain of savagery rather than the uplifting sense of refinement.
All the best to you my good Man —
Of course I remember you, J.C.,
I was so embarrassed to be reminded by you not to eat during a radio show. You taught me a valuable lesson and I’ve never again indulged gastronomically while broadcasting. You are certainly right about the plosive effect of those two words. Also the colloquial term for urine enjoys the same quality. Saying ‘That TSA official really ‘urined’ me off’ just doesn’t have the same oomph.
Is not dependence on such verbiage also a public demonstration of the speaker’s severe lack of English fluency and/or linguistic creativity. I recall reading of an incident during the American Civil War in which a Yankee soldier found a Reb hiding in some bushes. The blue-clad soldier told the soon to be captive, “Alright, I got you. Come on out.” “Johnny Reb,” clad in rags and probably infested with lice and/or fleas, said, “Yeah, and some get y’ got.” In the midst of a war, yet, no profanity, and neither cursed the other. Each clearly expressed his side of the situation. So far we have descended.
Great story, Don,
Thank you. Of course regular use of profanity definitely goes hand in hand with reduced vocabulary and fluency, in fact contributing significantly to that sad condition.
Well, I have MUCH to work on,,,,,,Thx MY RABBIE
You’re always funny. Reminds me of the time Winston Churchill, upon being told that prime minister Clement Atlee was a modest man, responded, “Well, Mr Atlee has so much to be modest about”
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