Holy taboo, Batman!

Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Image courtesy Wikipedia.

I shall read:
Melissa Mohr. 2013. Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing (available both on Google Play and Amazon).

I’m adding this book to my goram reading list, based on an interview that Dr. Mohr gave Q The Summer (CBC Radio 1, 15 August 2013).

Here’s some of the points from the interview that make me want to read the book.

Swearing comes from the limbic system, not from the usual language centres of the brain. This explains why some brain injuries impede regular speech but not swearing. It can also be beneficial; for instance, swearing seems to actually increase our tolerance for pain.
How swearing has changed over the years is an indication of what that culture thinks is taboo. Ancient Romans – being “manly men” – often used words indicative of being sexual “receivers” as swear words. During the Medieval period, swear words typically involved religion. In Victorian times, swearing was all about sex – to the point that even “leg” was considered a taboo (and hence a swear) word. (If you wanted to refer to the leg of a table, one would use “limb” or “lower extremity” or some such.) By the middle of the last century, Victorian goofiness had given way to the usual swear words we know today, which remain sexual and scatological in nature.

And it continues to change. Over the last 50 years, a new set of words are becoming taboo and therefore swear words, two key examples of which are “retard” and “nigger.” While some may say that ever more frequent use of swear words these days is a sign of the coarsening of our society, I think we’re actually becoming more sophisticated – that the old swear words denote nothing particularly offensive (like “shit” and “fuck”) while the emergent new swear words (like those noted above) are becoming taboo because they connote extreme discrimination of the worst sort, racism, and other concepts that have far worse implications than sex and defecation.

Although I only have a five minute interview on CBC to go on, I will offer one thought of my own. There has been considerable drift in what Western societies have considered taboo. This tells me that those visceral feelings of revulsion that we get when we hear especially foul language are not innate. They’re not innate – no matter how much they may feel innate – because they used to be different.  And if they’re not innate, than we can change them to be as we decide we should be.  Now that we understand that taboos change, we can decide what is and what isn’t taboo. It’s absurd to think that a Victorian gentleman would be as offended by the word “leg” as we are by the word “nigger.” And yet, that’s just about how things actually were/are. So what we think of as something innate is actually something that we learned from our culture.

This should give us all pause: what other beliefs might we think are obviously innate and immutable, yet are in fact rooted in culture and so most certainly mutable (albeit with rather glacial slowness)?

Something to think about.


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