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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

THE IMAGERY OF PROFANITY


I really don't have a problem with someone who swears, provided it is done in the proper context and with a little finesse. Profanity is useful for venting frustration, expressing disgust, anger, or to ridicule someone. They are powerful words which command attention and are intended to produce a reaction, but I think we use such words to invoke a particular image as opposed to what they truly mean. The same is true in racial expletives where we try to invoke certain images and stereotypes. Frankly, I find the etymology of such expressions extremely interesting and amusing.


Although some of the profanity we use today can be traced as far back as the 14th century, most originated in the 1800's, but it took two World Wars to popularize such expressions, a truly joint American-British effort. Let me review some of our more popular expressions for which I apologize if anyone is offended (if such profanity bothers you, I suggest you turn back now).


"Son of a bitch" - At one time, SOB was considered one of the most common and offensive insults in America. Today, it is considered somewhat mild and is commonly found on television. Obviously, it is intended to describe an illegitimate bastard, but you've got to wonder about the person who first put it together which was most likely used in a derogatory vein towards someone. It sounds like it was used in anger and, lacking the skills to condemn the other person properly, attacked the person's ancestry. Interesting image though isn't it? Instead of saying we do not like the person, we attack his mother's character. I think today though we are more inclined to use SOB to express frustration as opposed to attacking someone.


"Asshole" is another old expression and I've always found it amusing how someone established this analogy between the human posterior and how someone deports himself. I guess "loser" wasn't in our vernacular yet, but it most certainly is an effective way of classifying people. Closely related to it is, "Kiss my ass" (which I think replaced "Go to Hell"), as well as "Dumb Ass" and its counterpart "Smart Ass" (of the two, I think I would prefer being called the latter as opposed to the former).


"Shit" is derived from the Old English word "shite" meaning to defecate or befoul. As an aside, the "e" was dropped in the 16th century, but it wasn't until the 1870's that it became popular. To me, the various manifestations of shit are what makes for some of the most interesting images around:



  • "Shit for brains" is one of my favorite images and I would love to know the person who came up with this one. I think it is closely related to "Shit head."
  • "Shit faced" refers to someone being intoxicated, but the literal translation is funnier.
  • "Shit on a shingle" is from the military delicacy of chipped beef on toast.
  • "Shit house" of course refers to outdoor plumbing (see "outhouse").
  • "Shit list" is something nobody wants to get on.
  • We are "Shit out of luck" when we are down and out.
  • And "Eat shit" doesn't exactly endear us to another, and it's something we certainly do not want to order from the menu.


But my favorite derivative is "Bullshit" which can be used in a variety of contexts, particularly in business. How "bull" got linked to "shit" is a bit of a mystery, but certainly makes an interesting image doesn't it? The Japanese love the word "bullshit" as they have nothing comparable to it in their language.


"F**k" - Then, we come to the "Big Kahuna" of profanity, the legendary "F" word, which still makes a lot of people squirm uncomfortably. Actually it is as old as the word "shit" and was originally used as an expletive of anger as opposed to sexual intercourse. When you think about it, it's an ugly word that sounds vulgar thereby making it preposterous to associate it with the act of love. Maybe if it had a French twist it might sound more appealing, like "Le fuckeƩ."


As in the use of "shit" there are many derivations of the "F" word we have used over the years:



  • "Go f**k yourself" - which would be an interesting trick if someone could do it and, in all likelihood, it would cause a lot of people to stay in bed all day.
  • "F**k it all" - is either an admission of defeat or someone with a greatly exaggerated libido.
  • "Motherf**ker" - which is used to attack someone's integrity through incest.


Even the word "snafu" is linked to the "F" word, meaning: situation normal, all f**ked up. Yet, "snafu" is much more socially acceptable than the root word itself.


Obviously, there are many other words and expressions we use which, when we think about them, you have to wonder how they were derived and the image associated with them. I wonder what the circumstances were to trigger such outbursts. As for me, I just listen and laugh, which is probably not the reaction most people are looking for. Because of all of the interesting quirks in the English language, I guess it is no small wonder why it is the hardest language to learn.


If you would like to learn more about certain words and expressions, please see:

Online Etymology Dictionary


Such is my Pet Peeve of the Week.


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Tim Bryce is the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at timb001@phmainstreet.com


For a listing of Tim's Pet Peeves, click HERE.


Copyright © 2009 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.