03 March 2007

The Sociolinguistics of Seven Words You Can't Say on TV

Note from the LuapHacim, 11/14/2012: The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect my current beliefs and convictions. Even if they do, I would almost certainly express them in different words today. Time changes people, and I am not exempt. Nonetheless, because of its historical value, I will not modify or remove this post. It tells you (and me) something important about where I've been. Read on at your own peril.

A post by Evil Bender sparked my curiosity yesterday. Apparently, Patrick Ishmael did a fairly unscientific study on the profanity quotients of conservative and liberal bloggers and found that the libs used George Carlin's "infamous '7 Dirty Words'" about 18 times as frequently as the cons did. Big surprise, huh.

This made me start to wonder about the origins of said dirty words. I have often heard that most of our taboo words are Germanic in origin, so I decided to test this claim by doing some etymological checks on the Dirty Seven. My goal in doing this is not to titillate, scandalize, or flout norms; it is, rather, to examine this discussion in terms of its historical and sociolinguistic implications. If you are offended by the presence of dirty words, please scroll down past the chunk of bold text.

All of my information comes from the Oxford English Dictionary, which is considered by most experts to be the final word in etymological concerns.

Shit -- From the Old English (OE) verb "scítan." OE is a form of old German, brought over by Angles and Saxons during the eighth and ninth centuries. It was the dominant language of England until the invasion of William of Normandy in 1066.

Piss -- Onomatopoeic word that developed along parallel lines in the Germanic and Romance languages.

Fuck -- Hard to trace; has been a taboo word for so long that written records of it were quite scarce until the sixteenth century. Thus, its exact origins are difficult to trace. There is a synonymous German verb, "ficken," which could be the source. Regardless, this word is almost certainly not from the French.

Cunt -- Corresponds to the Old Norse (ON: a sister language to OE) "kunta" and the Germanic "kunte." Is used with great regularity in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Normally glossed as "pudendum").

Cocksucker -- Not surprisingly, there is no OED entry for this word. However, here are the etymologies for its constituents: Cock -- ON "kokkr" and French "coq"; Suck -- OE "súcan," corresponding to Latin "sugere."

Motherfucker -- A compound of the sort that is extremely common in OE. "Fuck" is probably of Germanic origin, and "mother" is a fairly common word in Indo-European languages, which suggests that it has changed relatively little since the beginning of this particular branch of language had its origins. This means that it can be traced to either Germanic or Latin/French.

Tits -- From the OE "tit."


Thus, we see that all of Carlin's infamous seven do, indeed, have either unquestionably Germanic origins or at least a possibility of Germanic origins. So what?

This is a textbook case of linguistic dominance. When a new dominant language comes into a nation (as French did in 1066 when William invaded), the old language gets pushed to the margins and reworked as substandard. A significant part of this substandardization is relegating many of the old language's words to profanity. Meanwhile, the conquering language and culture forcibly take the positions of honor and respect.

Here is a list of some acceptable replacements for the seven words you can't say on TV:

Bowel movement -- French
Urinate -- Latin
Excrement -- French
Intercourse -- Latin
Vagina -- Latin
Penis -- Latin
Scoundrel -- French
Villain -- French
Rogue -- French
Breasts -- Germanic

Note that only one of these "replacement" words comes from Germanic.

What we have, then, is a conquering language asserting itself as the norm while forcibly pushing the language of the colonized "other" into the realm of transgressive speech.

For various reasons, French eventually became less and less important in England until, by the fifteenth century, it was displaced by English as the official language of the court and the Parliament. Nevertheless, the marks of Norman French dominance remain firmly rooted in the langauge, to the extent that hyperconservative bloggers continue to obsess over them.

What implications does this have for us today?

First, we should bear in mind that profanity is what it is primarily because the dominant cultural forces dictate that it should be so. Words are tools, and we must decide how to use them. Conversely, we must also realize that no amount of gratuitous profanity can eliminate a word's stigmatized history. Yes, some profane expressions can be subverted and normalized, but not all, I think.

Second, we should realize the consequences of pushing things out of the mainstream and into the corners of our culture. The Normans, for example, succeeded in making Germanic Old English a vulgar, less prestigious form of communication, but they could not eliminate the language's role in English society and culture. Germanic words shifted functions, but they couldn't be eliminated altogether. Similarly, if we strive to marginalize Muslims in American culture, we may wind up getting something that we haven't bargained for -- like, for instance, a militantly anti-American group that is willing to take drastic actions to assert its social validity.

Thirdly, if Patrick Ishmael were to include this blog in his search, he would get at least eight "positives," regardless of the fact that I have avoided using any of the "dirty seven" gratuitously. Doing a Google site search on particular domain names ignores matters like communicative appropriateness, which is another reason that his methodology is flawed.

Essentially, what Ishmael has done with this "study" is what most conservative bloggers seem to delight in: polarizing and binarizing everyone who reads it. I really wish people would think more about these things instead of responding so quickly with a "heck yes, your right Pat ok lol" or a "wtf your so wrong >:("

Edit -- A late realization: this makes the phrase "pardon my French" sadly inaccurate. :-(


LQ said...

What a fantastic post! I intend to link to it later on. Linguistics r cool! :)

Joyous said...


tsbjf said...

This was a really interesting post to read--I guess I was never curious before of where bad words originated from; you have put any future curiousity to rest. Thanks.