BYLINE: Faye Flam
SECTION: FEATURES MAGAZINE; Pg. D01
LENGTH: 739 words
Several weeks ago Inquirer editors debated whether we should allow more dirty
words in the paper. There was talk of loosening the restrictions on damn, which
we’ve long placed in our category of lesser offenders though it implies
something horrendous – condemnation to hell (a word we’re also easing up on).
Topping our list of the worst possible words is the F-word, though in its
literal sense it conveys something very nice. Writers are not specifically
forbidden to use it but there are enough hoops to jump through that nobody has
broken the F- barrier yet.
It’s listed in our highest security class of obscenity, along with three
synonyms for penis, two for vagina, two slang terms for oral sex, two variants
on animal waste products and one expression that employs the F-word in an
What does this say about our society, and is there any scientific explanation
for why people yell out a word for sex when they stub their toes?
Linguists tend to speak not of bad words but of linguistic taboos. Most cultures
have such taboos, but they vary wildly, says University of Pennsylvania linguist
Mark Liberman, author of Far From the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches From
Language Log, which refers to his blog: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/
Some cultures create elaborate rules about mixing sex and speech, he says. In
parts of New Guinea, you’re not allowed to have sex with anyone who shares your
primary language. Luckily, people there know lots of languages, so they
Some aboriginal Australians have a sort of incest-related taboo against speaking
with the family of your spouse. All words in their primary language are
forbidden, so they create artificial “mother-in-law languages” to talk to their
For general taboo words, religious expressions are huge, and there’s often a
superstitious element involved, Liberman says. In some places, people think that
if you utter the names of certain deities, you might attract their attention in
a bad way.
Bodily function words, while popular, are not universally taboo. In Finnish,
Liberman says, all sexual acts and sex organs can be expressed in language clean
enough for Ann Landers. You can’t employ Finnish sexual words to swear, he says,
since it would come out something like “Oh, intercourse!”
Liberman knows all kinds of fascinating bad-word facts. For example, the
earliest record of typographical bleeping of the F-word is in an English legal
document from 1698 detailing the arrest of Capt. Edward Rigby for attempting to
“F-” another man.
Overall, the scientific evidence suggests swearing is good for you, says
psycholinguist Timothy Jay of Massachusetts College of the Liberal Arts and
author of Cursing in America.
We’re the only animal that can curse, he says, which sometimes helps us avoid
physical violence. “It allows us to express our emotions symbolically and at a
distance.” For example, Jay says, when a woman was weaving in front of him on
the road that morning he was able to call her a “dumb ass” instead of getting
out of his car and biting her.
To further understand swearing, Jay studied people with Tourette’s syndrome
because they sometimes involuntarily blurt out swear words. He found the words
tend toward the most unacceptable in their native tongues.
For the rest of us, he said, as a general rule, the most stress-relief mileage
comes from the most taboo words in one’s personal culture.
The British have a slightly different swearing vocabulary, favoring bloody,
bollocks and another b-word that ends like skulduggery. Last year a copy editor
expunged that word from one of my columns. We can’t say it because it means anal
sex, which we can say.
Americans, in contrast, rely heavily on our F-word.
In addition to helping Dick Cheney refrain from biting all the Democrats in
Congress, it represents the most direct and concise English term for sexual
Some commentators have warned that we’re wearing out the poor word with gross
overuse, draining it of its original cathartic power. But Jay says we have
nothing to worry about. It’s an old word, possibly stemming from German and not
an acronym for For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, as urban legend has it. It’s been
part of the English language for more than 1,000 years, he said, and it’s still
so taboo you can’t say it on TV or in school. Or in our newspaper.