"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn… for the definition of profanity."
1: the quality or state of being profane
2: the utterance of profane language
3: profane language
1: the utterance of language that both attacks and offends
2: language that both attacks and offends
When we think of profanity, we think of a certain group of words that function as both as actual words and as expletive attributives. This definition is far removed from the original definition, which was simply anything that didn't belong to the Church. A medieval speaker might have referred to a profane building or a profane herd of sheep, whereas modern listeners would be confused by such usage. Along the way, the word evolved.
This evolution is central to understanding the modern definition and usage. In the beginning, 'pro fanum' simply meant 'outside the Church'. Later, it evolved to 'profanus', and became 'unclean'. This change - from secular to blasphemous - is one that was reflected in many other avenues of culture, and is now an obsolete concept. Later, 'profanity' progressed from being an attack on religion to simply an attack.
In the latter part of the 20th century, uttering profanity in a public venue was a criminal offense. Comedians Lenny Bruce and George Carlin were both famously arrested multiple times in a twenty-year span for including profanity in comedy shows in private venues. Today, it is mixed bag of civil, criminal, and no offense at all, which can garner a large fine if spoken on prime time television, an arrest if spoken in the Michigan public, or nothing at all in North Carolina.
In the landmark North Carolina profanity case, the judge’s ruling included the opinion that, “There is no longer any consensus, if there ever was, on what words in the modern American lexicon are ‘indecent’ or ‘profane’.” And indeed, a 2009 study found that 0.5% to 0.7% of all spoken words are what we would call profanity. Compared to first-person plural pronouns, which make up 1% of our spoken words, profanity seems to be a significant portion of our speech, without ever managing to meet the current dictionary definition.
Were the definition to include attacking speech, it would be passable. After all, when we use profanity, we are frequently attacking. Cher was attacking her dissidents when she used profanity at the 2002 Golden Globes, resulting in a network fine from the FCC. Samantha Elabanjo was attacking a police officer when she called him an ‘asshole’ in North Carolina, resulting in her 2010 arrest. Based on modern usage, profanity is now - pardon my French - a damned long way from its benign adjective of origin, which is why the dictionary definition referencing religious blasphemy is so inadequate.
This word has gained increased usage in our life, which has contributed to its evolution. In my own experience, it appeared almost exclusively in school and university conduct handbooks, warning us to watch our speech, and causing us no small amount of aggravation. “Profane?” we sneered, “by whose definition?” This may seem like a teenage cavil, but it seemed to us to be a very valid complaint. One teacher might consider a muttered religious vanity to be profanity, while another didn’t flinch at either the Lord’s name or a well-placed damn. We never knew precisely which words were going to garner trouble, and the insufficient definition was no help at all.
My friends and I debated our own definitions. Homework was profane, we thought, along with early mornings and the imagined cruelties of our teachers. We had no knowledge of the etymology of the word, but we grasped the modern day meaning all too well; homework was an attack on our free time, early mornings on our sleep, and cruelty on our well-being. We peppered our language with these forbidden expletive attributives, unknowingly passing our contributions to the continued evolution of the word. This leads us to the modern usage, wherein the word must not only attack, but offend.
Yes, offend. That North Carolina officer might have passed by a dozen muttered expletives throughout his morning, yet he only took notice when those words were rudely offered to him. Similarly, if your dorm roommate announces their plans to attend to their morning ablutions, you may not even notice his choice of vernacular. Yet if he made a similar announcement at Sunday family breakfast, someone is certain to take exception. As another example, a woman might enjoy listening to a lover’s description of her attributes, but would not take so kindly to hearing the same from a passing construction worker. In these examples, the listeners are both attacked and offended by the choice of words presented to them.
The same holds true when using profanities as expletive attributes. You might casually curse when speaking with a friend, but if you told that same friend to fuck off, they wouldn’t take it so kindly. You might bitch to your sibling about your grades, but if you called them a bitch, your sibling might be inclined to join your friend in their low opinion of you. Again, in these examples, the words both attack and offend.
An expanded definition, as previously outlined, would account not only for the popularity of modern-day profanity, but for the ‘Seven Dirty Words’ that you can’t say on television, the Shakespearean insults which may turn an English major pale (Err, paler, anyway.), and the more intellectual insults that make any dictionary-owner match the red cover. It would account for all colloquialisms that both attack and offend, and would more accurately convey the meaning to a listener. Most importantly, this expanded definition would establish a litmus test that would satisfy both judges and teenagers.
Breen, Tom. “Judge Strikes Down NC Ban of Public Profanity.” CBS News Online. CBS News. 10 January 2011. Web. 2 September 2012.
FCC vs. Fox. No. 10-1293. Supreme Court of the United States. 21 June 2012.
Gone with the Wind. Dir. Victor Fleming. Perf. Clark Gable. Distributor. 1939.
Jay, Timothy. "The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words." Perspectives on Psychological Science (2009). Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Web. 28 August 2012.
Lenny Bruce. Dir. John Magnuson. Perf. Lenny Bruce. Distributor. 1967.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Merriam-Webster Online, 2012. Web. 28 August 2012.
Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, 2012. Web. 28 August 2012.
Pinker, Stephen. “Freedom’s Curse.” The Atlantic. November 2008. Web. 2 September 2012.
Stingl, Jim. “Carlin’s naughty words still ring in officer’s ears.”. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 30 June 2007.
State vs. Samantha Elabanjo. Orange County Superior Court. 5 January 2011.