When I started my journey with public speaking, speech-writing became an increasingly important task. My marketing career was steering into the direction of content writing, and the music taste of mine started paying more and more attention to the rap genre. Not to the lyrics in and of itself, as most of them are a dumpster of twisted morals, but to the technical intricacies of those who seem to have mastered the skill of wordplay.
My interest in the craft of using language not simply as a communication tool started to grow rapidly. Today, I see letters, words, and sentences as a tool of an artist, who uses them to tell stories, to converse with the reader without physically being present in the direct vicinity. It’s like dancing, only that your dance floor is a keyboard.
This new-found appreciation for the language changed my stance on profanity, and that’s what we’re going to discuss today.
The origins and history of profanity
The word ‘profanity’ originates from the term ‘profane’, which in turn originates from the Latin profanus, meaning ‘outside the temple’. As you can guess, it is closely related to religion and religious beliefs, or lack thereof, should I say. ‘Profane’ essentially meant ‘desecrating what is holy’ and in itself was widely considered to be blasphemous.
Thankfully, nowadays, although still quite potent, religious influence slowly diminishes. Unfortunately, its role in censoring languages is being taken over by the extreme leftists’ approach of labelling everything ‘offensive’.
Swear words like ‘fuck’, ‘damn’, ‘shit’ etc. all come from the ancient times and are not a particularly new invention.
Types of profanity
Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist and psycholinguist, suggests five potential uses of foul language:
- Abusive profanity: serves as a tool of intimidation, used to offend or otherwise cause psychological damage to its victim(s). All kinds of slurs would fit into this category, as even when used cathartically, they carry a damaging emotion behind them.
- Cathartic profanity: often not fully controlled, used in response to pain or otherwise unfortunate event(s).
- Dysphemistic profanity: a language tool for conveying negative thoughts about a specific subject. May be used to cause harm by affecting its listeners and making them share its author’s opinion.
- Emphatic profanity: another language tool for highlighting a part of a speech by utilizing the powerful effect of the emotion attached to a particular swear word.
- Idiomatic profanity: doesn’t have any other purpose than to lower the formality of a relationship between the speaker and its listener(s).
Why foul language is generally considered a mauvais ton
There are a couple of reasons why foul language is considered in most cultures to be of a bad taste at the very least.
From the linguistic standpoint, when a person uses cuss words without any apparent reason, it’s a great sign of a scarcity of their vocabulary, which is not the best trait of any human being, let alone someone who wants to be a person of good manners.
Secondly, it breaks the agreed-upon rules of etiquette, signalling the lack of respect towards the listeners, and, as a result, harms your good name.
Thirdly, most swear words carry a charge of a negative emotion, just like a missile carries its warhead, to cause extensive mental damage to those on the receiving end. Purposefully hurting another human is a punishable offence in many countries, and thus is not something you’d want to do.
And fourthly, because of the impact that religions had and have on our world. We still perceive cursing through the lens of a theistic POV.
Can a gentleman cuss?
Now, as you’ve just read the previous part of this article, you might get somewhat confused.
‘How is this even a question, then? Shouldn’t a gentleman simply refrain from using any profanity, period?’
Well… Not really.
Let’s start by remembering the emphatic role of a cuss word. As a writer and a public speaker, I highly value those already mentioned emotional charges that any word, for that matter, could carry.
To be able to use profanity as a gentleman, one should not only be aware of the hurt it can cause, and the damage it can deal to one’s personal brand, but also of the audience and most importantly – the context of a given situation.
It just happens so that no other word, however sophisticated your vocabulary is, can carry the same emotional charge as that of a swear word. Masterfully used, can have an overwhelmingly positive impact on your spoken or written speech. Delivering a paragraph or two worth of value within a single word.
An additional case I deem important to discuss is the case of tic disorders, Tourette’s syndrome being one of them. A phenomenon known as corporalia is an occasional characteristic of a tic disorder that shows itself in a form of involuntary usage of swear words, obscene words or otherwise socially unacceptable, offensive or derogatory remarks.
Such a characteristic doesn’t define a person. Anyone who’s affected by it has to be treated not through the lens of profanity or any other words that are used, but in the same way as someone without the tic. Even if someone tics with racial slur, it does not mean it represents their belief system.
So, before one starts to judge a gentleman for its use of profanity, one should investigate the context of a particular situation.
Latest unofficial ‘evolution’ of the diplomatic protocol
24 February 2022 changed the course of the diplomatic protocol. To a degree.
As russia invaded Ukraine, the world rallied to support Ukrainians in their fight against russia’s goal of extermination. The pain of the people of Ukraine transformed into a plethora of profanity-powered phrases that both help the nation to cope with the russia’s atrocities and to boost their fighting morale.
The famous direction in which the russia’s Black Fleet’s flagman ‘Moskva’ was ordered to follow became an expression that, to this day, can be heard all around the globe.
Many European politicians started using the phrase as a powerful sign of support, ignoring the protocol for the cause that mattered more than a mere set of rules.
And while a year after, the political scene seemingly went back to its organized way of work, this war set a precedent that might have a long-term effect on the usage of swear words in the diplomatic scene.
Having looked at the origins of profanity, various types and reasons for it to be considered a bad taste, I wanted to make a point at how swear words are yet a mere tool in the hands of anyone who partakes in the social act of conversation, be it in a form of public speaking, writing, social media posting etc.
As I already mentioned in The ‘Ladies & Gentlemen’ Paradox, a gentleman doesn’t follow rules blindly without understanding them thoroughly, and thus profanity, indeed, has its place in one’s vocabulary. Applying it without damaging personal brand is a skill that has to be mastered in private, however, before deciding to showcase it in front of others.