“I’m always interested in what is seen as obscene or profane or unfit.” – Jenny Zhang
“Obscenity and profanity had no meaning as such among those people. They were emotional expressions of inarticulate people with small vocabularies.” – Betty Smith
As a young man, my husband loved to be outdoors. Nothing could stop him from climbing up, over or into things that sparked his curiosity or challenged him. One of his passions was spelunking, and for a couple of summers he’d spend weekends in caves, crawling through tunnels with the weight of the world just inches above his shoulders. While cave exploration was not a passion of mine, he was, so until nascent claustrophobia surfaced, I could be found crawling behind him, elbowing my way to caverns we had not yet seen. My father, insisting that it had taken men millions of years to emerge from the caves, couldn’t understand why anyone, much less his daughter, would want to return to them. He applauded progress and believed the survival of men, as well as sharks, depended on forward motion.
I recently read that 51% of Americans believe our culture and way of life have worsened since the 1950s. Were he still alive, my father could be counted in that number. His generation survived the Great Depression and World War II and they wanted better lives for their families. They worked hard, often at two jobs, to assure their children’s entrance to the world would be easier than theirs had been. For the most part they were successful. Education and exposure to a broader culture gave their children a patina that they lacked. They raised a well-mannered generation that was better spoken and better schooled in appropriate behavior than they had been.
The air must have been pretty thin on the top rung of the ladder because the generation they raised lost its footing. Standards began to slip and words that were once considered taboo worked their way back into the vernacular in the late 60’s and 70’s. How far they slipped has become apparent in our current environment. We now have the “F” word contending with the “C” word for prominence as the most offensive. I’m not particularly offended by either, but I’m amazed that some think using a letter to represent a word makes it more acceptable than it would otherwise be. This letter business is pretty childish. I’ve actually done some research regarding the “F” word. Did you know it was first used in the 15th century by a monk who needed a replacement for the word damn? The church forbade the use of the word damn, so he filled in the blanks with the “F” word instead. While the word also refers to the act of sexual intercourse, it is more often used as an intensifier that denotes disdain. The word has a jarring ring to it; it’s crude and the frequency with which it is used is a measure of how bereft our vocabularies have become. What if Archimedes, thinking he was one of the boys, used the F-bomb instead of “Eureka” when he discovered the principle of density? The world would be no different but a memorable quote would have been lost.
While that may be the case, the F-bomb is one of the world’s most used homonyms. Its use and overuse in everyday speech has led has led to to a lessening of its impact as an expletive. These days the word no longer has the shock value it did when the critic Kenneth Tynan first caused controversy by saying it on British television in 1965. It is interesting to note that the word is one of the few in the English language that can be used as a noun, a verb, an adjective, an interjection or an adverb. And use it we do.
“When you come to those parts of the body which are not usually mentioned,” C. S. Lewis once said, “you will have to make a choice of vocabulary. And you will find that you have only four alternatives: a nursery word, an archaism, a word from the gutter, or a scientific word.” Ours is a living language that is not overseen by the likes of the Académie française, the group that protects the French language. Change is to be expected. The question that has not been successfully answered is does language change society or does society change language. Slang makes it way to our dictionaries and classic words, assigned new meanings or pronunciation, move from dictionaries to society. I do hope that we will all remember that language helps enrich our lives and makes more than a token contribution to our culture. Those caves are damp and mighty dark.