In December of 1989, mourners flowed into the Great Hall at St Bartholomew’s Hospital to hear former Monty Python group member and cancer victim Graham Chapman eulogized.
Yet, Chapman’s longtime writing partner John Cleese offered more of a roast than a eulogy.
“Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard, I hope he fries,” Cleese deadpanned, claiming Chapman would have never forgiven him if he didn’t take the opportunity to shock everyone on his behalf.
As he finished, Cleese imagined a discussion in which the late Chapman urged him “to become the first person ever at a British memorial service to say ‘fuck.’”
One of the world’s funniest people, Cleese understood the power in using a vulgar word in a staid context. When the profane clashed against the sacred, it helped everyone in the audience release the sadness and tension that had built.
Profanity similarly achieves the same goal in our lives. Obscenities can help us cope with extreme circumstances, can signal to others when we’re being playful or serious, and can even help others know when we’re telling the truth. Fewer things are as satisfying as conducting a symphony of swear words to provoke a reaction.
But what if the concept of profanity vanished?
In 2020, virtually all of the guardrails that have kept obscenity out of public life are gone. People watch television on streaming apps like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and HBO Now, where profanity is de rigueur.
Even basic cable has lifted its language limits—audiences recently delighted as the 1990s-era Chicago Bulls brought locker room language to our living rooms in ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary series. Fans who have watched televised NBA games without spectators in the seats have no doubt caught some fragrant words despite the networks’ efforts to block them with delays and crowd noise.
Public debates take place on Twitter and Facebook, where regular people get to talk exactly how regular people talk. (HBO now owns exclusive rights to Sesame Street, where presumably Oscar the Grouch will one day graciously thank Big Bird for inviting him to “eat shit.”)
Even legacy media outlets are getting in on the act, with bestseller lists including book titles like Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Gary John Bishop’s Unf*ck Yourself, John Kim’s I Used to Be a Miserable F*ck, and of course, the children’s book parody Go the F**k to Sleep by Adam Mansbach.
Newscasts are also getting in on the action. During coverage of the George Floyd-related protests, cable news broadcasts made little effort to shield the public from fragrant language and graffiti. In February, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to make the case that he was a “political prisoner” to CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. The normally composed Cooper declared Blagojevich’s pleadings to be “bullshit.”
And, of course, politicians have seized on the new era of public vulgarities, often uttering verboten words on the record.
President Donald Trump leads the pack in this regard, seasoning many of his statements with language befitting his Queens upbringing. Some newspapers have had to re-imagine their style guides during the Trump era to catch all the president’s profanities. (The Washington Post, which printed the word “bullshit” five times in one day, compared Trump to President Camacho of the movie Idiocracy, who began his State of the Union Address by saying, “Shit. I know shit’s bad right now.”)
Trump’s opponents have often tried to match his profane effluence. When a media outlet reported former Secretary of State John Kerry was considering a late entry to the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Kerry responded with a tweet (later deleted) that said he was not getting in the race and that “any report otherwise is fucking (or categorically) false.”
Current vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris referred to Trump’s proposals as “bullshit.” Failed Presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard called Trump “Saudi Arabia’s bitch.”
And, of course, who could forget the Bard of Bravado, former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke? When answering a question about a mass shooting in Odessa, Texas last year, O’Rourke said “We don’t yet know what the motivation is … but we do know this is fucked up.”
After O’Rourke’s utterance, columnist John McWhorter of The Atlantic took up the soon-to-be-ex-candidate’s cause, arguing “fuck” as a public punctuation is no longer any worse than “damn” or “hell.”
“The truth is that in 2019, using the F-word is quite commensurate with being clean of scrub,” wrote McWhorter, arguing the word is “less obscene than salty.” Shifting linguistic mores, he argued, have rendered the word “spicy, but hardly evil or taboo.”
O’Rourke made no apology for his verbal habanero, as his campaign soon began selling t-shirts adorned with the words “THIS IS F*CKED UP.” His continued use of the word on the campaign trail hinted his newfound love of public profanity was more of a media stunt than a sincere heat-of-the-moment expression of frustration.
Profanity is nothing new, and nor is widespread indifference to it. Throughout history, there have been eras when the rampant use of obscenities was commonplace. But those times were characterized by a broader cultural coarseness—the societal mores were so crude, “swearing” or “cursing” hardly seemed out of bounds.
Similarly, the current acceptance of profanity isn’t causing cultural rot—it is merely a symptom of it.
Niggling over the president calling predominantly minority nations “shithole” countries or Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib promising to “impeach this motherfucker” is like watching pornography and getting upset when an actress curses. There have to be rules of propriety in play for something to offend —if society itself is vulgar, then obscenities no longer shock.
Further, the twin crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests and riots following the death of George Floyd have demonstrated another historical trend: When society is under duress, policing language no longer takes priority.
Like John Cleese saying “fuck” in a church, the broader context is everything.
There may be no era of literature more bawdy and obscene than the medieval era. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in 1386, features one character telling another that his rhyming is “not worth a turd,” and features terms like “arse,” and “coillons,” a crude synonym for “testicles.” Chaucer also generously uses anachronisms such as “dight” (screw) and “swive,” a term interchangeable with “fuck.” Chaucer referred to corrupt priests as “shitten shepherds.”
Another mid-fifteenth century poem, A Talk of Ten Wives on Their Husbands Ware, features women discussing the size of their husbands’ penises. One complaining her husband’s “meat” is the size of a snail, one says his “ware” is the size of three beans, and one observes that when her husband’s pants have a hole in them, his “penis peeps out of the hole like a maggot.”
As author Melissa Mohr argues in her lively book Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, the 15th and 16th centuries were a time when life for the average person was crude and indiscreet. The concept of a private restroom had not yet caught on, so after a big meal, someone might just walk over to the corner of the dining room and drop a deuce. Male and female servants often slept naked in the same room as their masters, leading one historian to remark that “the sight of total nakedness was the everyday rule up to the 16th century.”
In other words, the medieval era made Game of Thrones look like Downton Abbey.
It wasn’t until the late sixteenth century that architectural innovations began taking into account the unique notion that some people might actually want privacy. The idea began with the upper classes and then trickled down to the masses, who began walling themselves off from others in bedrooms and lavatories.
This physical separation and the rise of Protestantism coincided with a growth in the concept of shame.
“Privacy created what we’ve seen Elias call ‘the invisible wall of affects,’ and with it the embarrassment and shame at the sight or mention of bodily functions that medieval people lacked,” writes Mohr.
“Sixteenth-century people were ashamed of more things than their medieval forebears, and ashamed in front of more people,” Mohr writes. “It became more and more important to conceal these various shameful body parts and actions, in public life and in polite language.”
The new emphasis on shame led some sixteenth century linguists to begin defining what words could be said and which ones were “obscenus.” In 1587, a new Latin-English dictionary counsels that the “filthie, foule, uncleane, wanton, bawdie, unchast, ribauldrie, abhominable,” and “dishonest” should be avoided.
Interestingly, these new rules of propriety did not apply to those whom had nothing for which to be ashamed—that is, people in positions of power. A lord, for instance, may talk about the size of his package in the presence of his inferiors—being tawdry and indecent was a power move meant to demonstrate one’s social superiority. (According to journals kept by André Hurault, Queen Elizabeth was fond of baring her breasts in front of the French ambassador to show her condescension—she was 64 years old at the time.)
Soon, indecent language was relegated to the commoners, who enjoyed “low” entertainment like the plays of Shakespeare. The Bard, of course, was filthy, but often cloaked his sexual content in euphemism and innuendo. (For instance, when Hamlet tells Ophelia, “Do you think I meant country matters?,” he’s discussing anatomy, not geography.)
According to Mohr, obscene words violated class norms during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
“They were seen as the language of the lower classes, the uneducated—and accessed the deepest taboo of Augustan and Victorian society, the human body and its embarrassing desires, which had to be absolutely hidden away in swaths of fabric and disguised in euphemisms,” she writes.
Consequently, many American families changed their names to avoid embarrassing connotations—for instance, Little Women author Louisa May Alcott’s original family name was “Alcox.”
Naturally, that didn’t mean people denied themselves the delights of the occasional obscenity. The notoriously tawdry Benjamin Franklin, writing pseudonymously in Poor Richard’s Almanack, zinged the upper classes with jibes like “The greatest monarch on the proudest throne is obliged to sit upon his own arse,” and “Force shits upon reason’s back.”
Until modern times, however, profanity was largely kept out of the public record. Official writings and news accounts rarely reported obscene acts. In the course of writing a book about the year 1916, I read hundreds of news reports from that year—in one instance, a burglar stole an “iron man” from a sorority girl’s dresser drawer. In another, a man and a woman were arrested for engaging in a “soul kiss” in an alley. A different man was arrested for soliciting a “commercialized hug.” (The paper noted he “walked away in the arms of the law.”) And so on.
Yet court records, which were obliged to transcribe testimony verbatim, suggest that common folk used profanity much in the same way we do now.
For example, in one 1836 case, a woman named Mary Hamilton was charged with public obscenity for walking behind a group of women and telling them to “go and fuck themselves”—the first recorded use of this phrase. (Why there is no statue of Mary Hamilton commemorating this milestone remains a mystery.)
And while courts and society alike have wrestled with the issues of profanity and indecency forever (insert obligatory George Carlin “seven words you can’t say on television” reference here), the linguistic handcuffs are all but off in the internet era. The idea that one should be prohibited from swearing is a quaint one when censor-free quotes rocket around Twitter and Facebook.
And it is social media that has contributed to the coarseness of political dialogue—“canceling” the insufficiently woke and “owning the libs” now rule the day, when angry retweets serve as rocket fuel for online platforms. One study estimates one in every 13 tweets contains a profanity, with “fuck” making up 34.7 percent of the obscenities used.
YouTube videos, streaming music apps, and podcasts are virtually unencumbered by language filters. According to the Wall Street Journal, 70 percent of children 10 years of age and under subscribe to TikTok, the preferred app for teenagers lip-syncing to profane hip-hop songs.
In an everything-goes culture in which the president is not only elected in spite of talking about the size of his junk during a debate, but instead because of it, policing the appropriateness of language is a lost cause. People wave off the indiscretions of a philandering, porn star-loving president who picks fights with war heroes because they feel it is necessary to teach the political cognoscenti a lesson.
Mohr told me she agrees that the “f-word” is becoming less powerful because its use is less taboo, but that it is being replaced by racial slurs and epithets. “I used to think eventually the racial slurs would lose their power too, and we’d come up with something else, but at least right now it’s hard to see that happening,” Mohr said.
Mohr said she didn’t necessarily see the greater acceptance of swearing as a negative—she thinks it is more just a result of fewer societal limits on cursing. “I don’t think decorum is dead,” she said.
“Part of decorum is paying attention to other people and trying to not offend them,” said Mohr. “If I was going to locate a point of cultural decline, I might do it there. Some people seem to think whatever they are feeling, it’s important for them to express it at all times,” she said.
But there is no longer a dividing line between what Mohr deems the “Holy”— the sense of propriety and religious conviction that polices language—and the “Shit”—the obscene. It is Trump, after all, that thrust the word “pussy” into our homes in 2016, and his behavior has actually devolved since then.
It is impossible to tarnish what is, by definition, tarnish.
This is not to argue that profanity isn’t useful or necessary—quite the opposite. Profanity serves many crucial purposes that innocent euphemisms just can’t deliver.
For one, swearing has physiological benefits—in one study, researchers showed subjects were able to keep their hand in cold water for a longer period of time when allowed to say the word “shit” instead of “shoot.”
“I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear,” said the study’s lead researcher, Richard Stephens.
Profanities are also easier to remember—throw one into a public utterance, and amygdalas light up, helping semi-attentive people recall what they heard. According to cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, swearing triggers an electrophysical response “that emanates from the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the limbic system involved in the monitoring of cognitive conflict”—alternately known as the “Oh Shit Wave.”
Pinker also notes that hearing a profanity will often cause an individual to stop what they are doing and pay more attention. This is the thinking behind brands adopting names that sort-of sound like obscenities, such as the restaurant chain Fuddruckers. (At this point, we might as well finally fulfill the prophecy of the movie Idiocracy and resign ourselves to the fact there will one day be a restaurant called “Buttfuckers.”)
Further, while profanities can lead to physical violence, they often serve as a substitute. On the scale of hurting another, swearing is about as violent as one can be without punching someone. In some venues, people who swear are even seen as more honest, as they are “the kind of person who would not mince words to spare someone’s feelings or sense of decency.”
Nor should anyone be thought of as less intelligent when they use profanity. It is an old canard that those who swear only do so because they can’t think of a better word to describe something. In 1934, Cole Porter made this point, singing, “Good authors, too, who once knew better words / Now only use four-letter words / Writing prose, anything goes.”
But sometimes, you just need the right goddamn word, regardless of social status. If I loudly deem Sean Hannity to be “replete with biosolids,” it simply doesn’t have the same rhetorical swag as if I opted for the crude alternative. (Spending time among the linguistically chaste Mormons in Utah, I picked up the term “footsacking” to use in place of “fucking,” and it never made me feel better when McDonald’s got my drive-thru order wrong.)
As history has shown us, there will always be things we can and can’t say. Ironically, the political left, once the driving force behind comedian Lenny Bruce’s right to offend with impunity, is hard at work policing what currently can be uttered in polite society. College campuses are awash in complaints against professors and students alike who commit the sins of misgendering individuals and referring to—but not using—the “n” word. (Interestingly, as Pinker notes, this public language regulation process has changed some words, like “queer,” from good to bad, then back to good again.)
But breaking these taboos is far less satisfactory than swearing. When I can’t find my car keys, I will not calmly explain something that might irritate someone’s delicate sensibilities—I will need to commit a full-on act of macroaggression with unspeakable words said at maximum volume.
Soon, those words will be just like any other words. Sure, people aren’t defecating in the streets like medieval times, but our cultural coarseness has rendered profanity a triviality.
“Swearing with panache has always been associated, in my mind at least, with a willingness to take risks, and not just linguistic ones,” wrote author Gully Wells in 2014. “It’s rebellion against convention and having the confidence not to care what people think,” she wrote.
But there appear to be few conventions left to break and even fewer people who care.
And that is a fucking tragedy.