In the fabulous speech/article "What Happened to My Bell-Bottoms? How Things That Were Never Going to Change Have Sometimes Changed Anyway, and How Studying History Can Help Us Make Sense of It All", which I recommend reading in its totality because it's very interesting, Craig Harline says,
"We can start with something as simple as language. My good-hearted mother sometimes washed our mouths out with soap when we used slang words she thought were bad, so imagine my surprise when I learned decades later that some of the slang words she used herself were originally obscene. (I won’t repeat them so I don’t torment her or anyone else who uses them, because heavy is the burden of historical knowledge.) At a recent BYU devotional, the fairly young speaker used a word that originally was even more obscene than my mother’s favorites, and no one batted an eye, because to the speaker and most of the audience it was just a fun noun. Or how about the phrase 'Good grief,' so wholesome that even Charlie Brown says it? Turns out it’s just another minced swear word, with the 'good' referring to God (as it does in any English minced swear word containing 'good'). In fact, there are hundreds of such words, and most people reading this probably say some of them regularly without thinking them bad while thinking certain other words definitely bad, which I know because I and the rest of the historical police hear you."
I can add that in the Game Boy version of the classic "Lego Island 2", which is entirely devoid of objectionable content of any kind unless shooting robots with pizzas offends you, a couple of the medieval knight characters say "Gadzooks!" and/or "Zounds!" These terms are also in Shakespeare's works and probably thousands of other sources. Harmless, meaningless medieval slang to express shock or surprise, right? No, because "Gadzooks" is a minced swear word for "God's hooks" and "Zounds" is a minced swear word for "God's wounds". Ick.
My first thought when reading this passage, in any case, was that it sheds some light on my parents' perplexing aversion to me saying "sucks" like literally everybody else in my peer group, and why my dad hit me for saying "fricking" after I heard it in Sunday school from my twenty-something Sunday school teacher. My second thought was that it really highlights the absurdity of "swear words" as a concept to begin with. We've decided to have words in our language that we're not allowed to say, but euphemisms that evolve from them, and alternate words that mean exactly the same thing, are fair game. I'm sorry if the following is a weird example to use but it seems like a good one because it includes not two, but three words at varying levels of acceptability. One word for female genitalia is clinical and objective, another is vulgar even though it used to mean "cat", and another used to be clinical and objective but now is so offensive that even people who toss around f-bombs to their hearts' content usually shy away from it. And that makes no fricking sense.
Nor are swear words consistent across cultures. As far as I can figure out, the United States of America is the only part of the English-speaking world where "damn", "hell", and "bastard" are considered swear words. I don't know why but I assume it's just another case of Americans thinking they're better than everyone else and then being stupider than everyone else instead. Even here, though, an overwhelming majority of people drop those words in casual conversation with a clear conscience. While I am hardly an advocate of argumentum ad populum in most situations, it seems relevant in this case because literally the only reason swear words are "bad" is that people decided they are. So if people become entirely desensitized to their use and nobody cares anymore, shouldn't that mean by definition that they're no longer "bad" and no longer swear words at all? Just like in the rest of the English-speaking world?
Sometimes people argue that swearing is bad because it's "unintelligent" and/or "lazy". I actually agree that excessive swearing (such as when I have problems with my computer), sounds very unintelligent (but not lazy, as I'm generally very energized at the time). But so do a billion other slang terms, catchphrases and buzzwords that aren't considered obscene. "Oh my heck" sounds so ridiculous that when I moved to Utah I was surprised to find that people actually say it unironically, that it isn't just a stereotype, and by all rights according to this logic it should be one of the worst swears out there. Most people, including and especially myself, are not the epitome of articulation and thoughtfulness when they speak. Most people regularly say a lot of things that provide no benefit to the world and wouldn't be missed if they hadn't been said. Kind of like my blog.
I thought I had a lot more to say on this subject, but I don't, so you all get to go home early.
ADDENDUM: I don't often do this, but I found this passage from a paper by Ben Spackman that's too good not to include. Speaking of the Bible...
"Another issue of register concerns differing cultural expectations in terms of sacred writing and language. That which is taboo, shocking, or offensive in one culture may not be in another. While a few originally inoffensive passages became so by translation into a different time or culture, sometimes the prophets intended to shock and offend. One scholar even advises, 'If you do not wish to be shocked and disgusted, then stay away from reading the prophetic texts.' Some of these difficult passages have been bowdlerized in the past, some overlooked due to archaic language, and some just never noticed due to their relative obscurity. For example, 'The Hebrew Bible regularly uses the root ŠKB... "lie (with)" as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. But on four occasions the more direct verb ŠGL... occurs. Scholars agree that ŠGL was a word for sexual intercourse, but it may or may not have been vulgar (therefore, we cannot supply an exact English translation). In each of the four instances, ŠGL appears as part of a threat or condemnation, and always with the clear intention of shocking the audience... Obviously, the authors of these lines [in Deuteronomy 28:30, Isaiah 13:16, Jeremiah 3:1–2 and Zechariah 14:2] deliberately chose strong language—if not actual vulgarity - in order to horrify, upset and rattle their audience.'
"The English in 1 Samuel 25, involving David, Nabal ('Fool'), and 'every one that pisseth against the wall,' was not offensive when first published, but has now become so as American English has shifted. Translating in such a way as to avoid offending readers, as most modern translations do, turns out to obscure important connections within the story. Even if justifiable 'to provoke revulsion and disgust' and contextualized within its own time and culture, the graphic sexual, violent, or scatological imagery used by several prophets, particularly Ezekiel, challenges scholars and those who hold the Bible in high esteem.
"How should translators deal with these passages, far more numerous and problematic than most readers realize? They are not limited to the Old Testament. For example, Paul's use of 'you foolish Galatians' may be deliberate use of an ethnic slur to forcefully grab the attention of his audience, equivalent to 'you stupid rednecks!' In Philippians 3:8, he disdainfully describes as 'dung' (KJV) all he gave up to gain Christ (potentially a considerable amount) but some scholars bluntly suggest a different four-letter word is a more accurate translation. The NET Bible notes that skubalon 'was often used in Greek as a vulgar term for fecal matter. As such it would most likely have had a certain shock value for the readers.' Complicating matters, the same skubalon letter contains 'the admonition of Paul' to seek out whatever is pure and commendable, among other adjectives (Philippians 4:8). How does Paul reconcile his use of language with this admonition?
"Why are these passages so troublesome? Setting aside those examples in which prophets intended offense, other reasons exist. Modern readers have come to apply certain assumptions and expectations to the idea of 'Holy Scripture' which were foreign to its authors. John J. Collins remarks, 'When [certain Old Testament] stories are read as Scripture, they become more problematic, because of a common but ill-founded assumption that all Scripture should be edifying,' i.e., positive and uplifting. Ancient prophets did not labor under many of the assumptions we attach to scripture today, because they are largely modern assumptions. The contents of our 'Holy Scriptures' did not become such until long after they were written or preached. 'Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah et al. had no sense of the white-covered, gold-cross embossed Bibles in which their prose was to be packaged, nor had they been briefed on the standards of Western literary decorum against which they would inevitably offend.' Even our basic concept of 'scripture' today would be somewhat foreign to them. Certainly they would have thought they were operating under the Spirit of the Lord, but they were rarely conscious of authoring something that would become canon or 'Holy Scripture,' because it did not exist as such. Few prophets have ever written with the idea of 'I am adding to the canon,' because there was neither a formally established canon nor a concept of canon (generally in the Old Testament period), or because the canon was something other and past; in the New Testament period, 'scripture' referred broadly to the writings of Old Testament prophets (as in 2 Timothy 3:15), not things such as Paul's letters or the Gospels which were being written at the time. Indeed, Peter and Paul (and sometimes Joseph Smith in the Doctrine and Covenants) were simply writing letters to congregations, not attempting to produce canonized and inspired writing fit for all Christians in all times.
"The writings eventually canonized as the Bible accurately reflected life in its variety, with language humorous and serious, sacred and profane. But once combined with other books (Greek ta biblia, source of the term 'Bible,' means 'the books,' not The Book) and canonized as 'Holy Scripture,' certain expectations and assumptions came to be applied to each book and passage as though these criteria existed at the time, and prophets had written with them in mind. Consequently, the kind of language expected by the target community does not always match the kind of language used by the prophets. Should the translator privilege sensitivities of the target community, who may expect 'Holy Scripture' to use elevated, archaic, antiseptic language, or should they provide culturally accurate translations of the text, which would create the same kind of reaction among its readers as among its native audience?"
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.