Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.

Fuck you or the distinction of being vulgar

by Alex in Toulouse Sat Jun 10th, 2006 at 03:44:02 AM EST

I've been thinking about the fucking nature of curse words for some frigging time now, and I believe I've now bloody reached a point in my reflexion at which I can post a diary, Jesus Christ.

Not too long ago I had a private discussion with Izzy around a US TV series called Deadwood - about cowboys and general life on the western US frontier some time in the late 19th century. I told her that the cursing in the show seemed anachronic (ie. actors use "fuck" almost as an interjection in that show). She explained to me that this had been deliberately chosen by the director(s), on the basis that if curse words of the times had been used, ("Jesus", "hell" etc), viewers would not have realized how foul-mouthed people back then were.

This got me thinking: what is it about curse words that bothers some?

Is it the tone or perpetrator

Could it be that whether swear words bother depends on the way they're uttered or the person that utters them? Indeed, the most polite of British gentlemen can say, in a legendarily pragmatic and calm voice, "fuck you he said, jolly good I replied" while sipping tea, and this may not offend anyone. Whereas a poorly-shaven, Harley-riding, long-haired swearer could provoke mass fainting in some circles, with the same expression spoken in a raucous and uncaring voice. Likewise, when a 3 year old kid says "screw that bitch", a lot of neck hairs will rise, while the most elegant of British gentlemen can talk to his pedigree hunting dog in the following way, that will offend few people: "now listen to me Hectorius, you be a good dog and screw that bitch, jolly good I say".

Is it only about mass-approved ways of communicating anger in a given time context?

Is there some power in curse words used by one generation, that is lost upon another, like the director(s) of Deadwood tried to illustrate? Undoubtedly, I'd think. Not too long ago I scolded teenagers in my mom's village for behaving like pricks (please note my expert use of the word "prick") with her, and one of them looked at me icily and flashed two fingers at me. Now up to then I was familiar with the middle finger, but not with this. So I stuck up three fingers at him and asked him if this was stronger. Did I pick up extra cursing baggage in the process? Nope, any time in the future when this happens again, I'll still react in the same unimpressed & unperturbed way. Looking back, had this kid done a violent one-arm slap (which we call "un bras d'honneur" in France - see picture on the left) at me, I may have connected with the agressivity behind the gesture. But two fingers in the air? Nope, can't say that I get it.

Maybe swear words can only bother in a cultural context?

Well if swear words are generation-based, it's an easy jump to go from there to saying that they must also be culture-based. Why is any movie that contains even only one swear word destined to a PG-13 rating in the US, while here in France we nearly celebrate (at an honorary & illustrious degree) the alleged use of the word "merde" ("shit", though in those days it would have carried a lot more strength and meant something closer to "fuck off") by Cambronne at Waterloo? Does it have something to do with the "Vive la France" context in which "merde" was used (ie. in response to the English army's proposition for Cambronne to surrender, seeing as how his men were surrounded)? I could also here wink at Sven's earlier curiosity regarding character-cursing (such as "@$%" in Asterix) ... is that cultural, or rather universal? Ah, yes, the Latin alphabet ... but could there be some way to draw a universally accepted representation of a curse word? And if we could, what would this say about the meaning of curse words?

Is it the actual meaning of the words that can bother?

Ok, if we're going to discuss the meaning of curse words, let's have it. Some curse words represent actions or notions that some people may consider vile, as was recently discussed here in poemless's diary about "whores". "PD" for example, an acronym for "PeDophile", is commonly used here in France. Both as a standard insult with a not-necessarily-emphasised connection to homosexuality, (such as "sissy"), and as a specific way to hint at someone being a homosexual on the basis that homosexuality is vile ("you gaywad"). The latter is discriminatory, but the former is even scarier as it perpetuates into habit the name-calling of people through an indirect relation to homosexuality. Besides, you'll also choke at the notion that homosexuality and pedophilia are amalgamated through this word!

Another example of a curse word's meaning as a cause of antagonistic reaction, would be something like "va te faire enculer" ("go get yourself sodomized"). This uttered by a child will disturb because of the meaning behind the word (sodomy being perceived as something vile by those offended, or perhaps simply as something that pre-puberty kids need not know anything about).


Frankly, I'm not convinced by this meaning approach. For one, this brings me straight back to my argument about generations higher up. Indeed, "nique ta mère" ("screw your mother"), a rather explicit swear word, describing a very specific action, has now become a common insult in younger circles here in France. Its utterance can get a lot of youths angry. However when I hear it, I don't notice any agressivity in it, certainly because it doesn't belong to my generation.

And, this also brings me back to the tone/perpetrator argument: for instance, meaning becomes secondary when someone says "biaaatch", which for some unkonwn reason carries less agressivity than the straightforward "bitch".

And, this brings me back to the cultural argument: perhaps calling someong a "shithead" may be a compliment in some cultures.

Finally, all this about meaning makes me think about gestures, which contain no uttered words but are still considered "swearing/cursing" types (ie. such as "raising the middle finger", which does not carry any wording and thus no implicit meaning - although it could be argued that initially it did have something to do with sticking a finger where the Sun doesn't hit any photovoltaic arrays).

Overall I'd say that I don't have a fucking clue. But to quote Jean Yanne in the movie "Tout le monde il est beau, tout le monde il est gentil", saying "fuck, dick, prick, crap" may be considered vulgar, but "selling cheap products by tricking people, using morality to abuse of people's trust, now that - that is not vulgar, that is obscene".

Are you shocked if Papa Smurf says ...
. I fucked the fuck with the fuck 0%
. I smurfed the smurf with the smurf 22%
. I humped the hump with the hump 11%
. What? Me, shocked? 66%

Votes: 9
Results | Other Polls

If you don't have any fucking thing to say in my shitty diary, then piss off.

(translation without swear words: "if you don't have anything to say in my possibly not very useful diary, then I suggest that you don't waste too much time sticking around"

by Alex in Toulouse on Fri Jun 9th, 2006 at 09:50:45 PM EST
—ing right.

In The Truth Terry Pratchett used a very effective  comic treatment of a foul mouthed character, just used —ing.

I have always believe though that in English we have lost the art of cursing whilst increasing the usage of swearing.

The possibly apochryphal curse

"May the fleas of a thousand camels find a home in your armpits"

is basically saying

"Fuck you"

but with much more style.

Eats cheroots and leaves.

by NeutralObserver on Sat Jun 10th, 2006 at 05:55:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]

as joke, i have done a one-arm slap to my girlfriend (malaysian), and i have been really surprised that she absolutely didnt know what this gesture means ;-)

i told her that means " i love you" ;-)

by fredouil (fredouil@gmailgmailgmail.com) on Fri Jun 9th, 2006 at 10:25:31 PM EST
Wait, you were listening to me?  What the fuck!

Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding. -Hobbes
by Izzy (izzy at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Jun 9th, 2006 at 10:36:14 PM EST
my dear spunkbubble, this is an interesting and worthy topic.

Semiotics is the theory of meaning. Words - written or spoken - rarely have any formal meaning in everyday speech. They are simply short cuts in which the sender and receiver think they have a tacit agreement as to what the short cut means. So, as per my usual example, using the word 'architecture' enables a discussion about buildings, but if there is a need to define what 'architecture' means, it would be easier to list what 'architecture' does not mean, than to define it exactly.

And all word play is based upon the fact that a word is a matrix or frame, and the frame excludes the whole picture. We can never use the whole picture because every conversation would then take years. In fact many discussions here in ET are about definitions - definitions which can never be agreed upon because the cultural context of each writer is so different.

Some interesting facts: Finns often curse the devil or hell - perkele, piru, helveti - which gets no reaction from me. 'Vittu', though, is ugly IMHO, it literally means c*nt, but you can hear it everywhere even on TV.

There are several Native American Indian tribes who have no swearing at all (and neither do they have any concept of the ownership of land, which is why Whitie screwed them so easily in the 19th C.)

Many of my friends use faux swearing - like frikkin' - which is a marker to say we both know what it refers to, but we have not actually used the taboo word - a bit like whistling the tunes of dirty songs.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Sat Jun 10th, 2006 at 01:59:01 AM EST
Many of my friends use faux swearing - like frikkin'

The way I see it, as swear words change/evolve alongside dialects, it's implied that a word will be uttered in an accepted fashion until it becomes a swear word (ie. words don't become swear words overnight, do they?). So even faux swearing, which I also point to above with "biaaatch", is bound to become real swearing at some point (if more and more people opt for it that is, thus progressively abandoning the original swear word behind the faux wod). In this respect, perhaps tomorrow "biaaatch", which was unheard of not too long ago, will become a swear word and "bitch" will fall back to just being a way to call a female dog.

by Alex in Toulouse on Sat Jun 10th, 2006 at 04:29:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
and we haven't even mentioned Coprolalia yet, let alone touched upon Copropraxia, represented by your first graphic.

I feel an attack of Tourette's coming on...

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Sat Jun 10th, 2006 at 04:47:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Wow! I knew of Alien Hand Syndrome, I knew of aphasia, but I had no clue that such a thing as Copropraxia could exist. It sounds nasty! You white-faced Anglo-Finnish fish-eater, how did you ... oops, Tourette attack, Tourette attack, Tourette attack!
by Alex in Toulouse on Sat Jun 10th, 2006 at 04:53:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
to me baby.

Now that would be an interesting poll on the private lives of ET members. (Oh no, I can't even write 'members' now...)

Alex, I just exercised my powers and bumped you up into recommended. The advantage of a slow day at ET is getting bumped up.

It's a good job Jérôme is playing the slots (even that sounds dirty in the context of mature shows) otherwise he'd bump us up to FP out of sheer bloody-mindedness!

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Sat Jun 10th, 2006 at 05:07:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Bumping you up has caused me to go down. I'll have to go and unrecommend - sorry.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Sat Jun 10th, 2006 at 05:09:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Alternately I could just recommend you - ok, just did.

Don't we sound like a bunch of Kyoto agreement carbon emission traders? ;)

by Alex in Toulouse on Sat Jun 10th, 2006 at 05:13:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I just like frikkin with the system - any system.

But thanks anyway!

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Sat Jun 10th, 2006 at 05:16:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well normally I recommend everything (or nearly), but two days ago I said/decided here that I'd stop doing that as it sort of defeated the purpose of recommandation. Since then I've gone the other extreme and hardly recommended anyone.
by Alex in Toulouse on Sat Jun 10th, 2006 at 05:22:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Kyoto is my key to the cool club and George Dubya tells the world to go fuck itself.

My humble blog - featuring Friday Basset Blogging
by Man Eegee (man.eegee :at: gmail.com) on Sat Jun 10th, 2006 at 05:17:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
still down there in the ET list

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Sat Jun 10th, 2006 at 05:24:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Are you sure you can say "he'd bump us"?
I think I just heard the censor go beeeeep.

Ah yes which reminds me I didn't even get into the whole censorship thing that's in fashion across the Atlantic.

Family Guy and South Park, two cult & nasty animated series, recently brought this issue up. Family Guy ran a whole episode spefically aimed at censors, in which they said everything the censors would want to discard ... but it was all said in disguised ways (such as "hey babe do you want to have hum with me?"). It was really good - you couldn't miss a single swear word nor offending meaning, despite all the beeps. South Park had a similar episode but regarding the portrayal of Mohammed.

by Alex in Toulouse on Sat Jun 10th, 2006 at 05:20:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
based on the frequency of any genre of swear words in a particular culture at a particular time, as anthropological research.

I was half-expecting 'Gates' to become a swearword of the computing masses, but sadly that time has passed.

Then there is anoher whole area for discussion - surnames or product names that have unfortunate meanings when transferred to other languages. Brad Pitt has other connotations in Swedish. The Iranians were worried that Bob Dole might have become President because they could never use his surname in their newspapers.

An English biscuit company, in more innocent times, tried to export their best-selling (and my favourite) product to America. Unfortunately, 'Ginger Nuts' did not grab that market for some inexplicable reason ;-)

Perhaps other Eters have similar examples?

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Sat Jun 10th, 2006 at 05:01:26 AM EST
Here is a close-enough example, which I've already mentioned  here on ET: I used to have a banker whose family name was "Cosnard". I once was meeting him and said "Hello Mr Connard" (ie. I went for a silent "s", basing my appreciation of the pronounciation of his name on a long experience of French surnames, and not stopping to think twice about what I was actually pronouncing). What I said was "Hi Mr Shithead (or Mr Fucker)". He looked at me icily and corrected me "Mr CoSSSnard".
by Alex in Toulouse on Sat Jun 10th, 2006 at 05:11:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
New woman teacher meets headmaster:

Hello, my name is Ms Franny

Ms Fanny, welcome to the school.

Ms Franny, actually

Headmaster thinks must remember that - fanny with an R, fanny with an R and then introduces her at morning assembly

Now school, I'd like you to give a big welcome to our new teacher, Ms Crunt.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Sat Jun 10th, 2006 at 05:21:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ah the sweet sound of laughter in the morning! A very fine joke, sir.
by Alex in Toulouse on Sat Jun 10th, 2006 at 05:25:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's the way I tell 'em ;-)

Now I have to go to the sauna and then get some work done...later, Tourette d*Eiffel

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Sat Jun 10th, 2006 at 05:31:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I also have to start my day (shower, work), because in a few hours time it will be Football/Rugby/Football (3 matches to watch today - I will not watch Sweden - Trinidad as it's at the same time as the rugby final). So long, suckers!
by Alex in Toulouse on Sat Jun 10th, 2006 at 05:40:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't know the legislation in Finland regarding administratively changing your surname, but in France I think you're allowed to change one or two letters (or so) if you have a name that is a source of ridicule or that is pejorative (as in if there is a similarity to a vulgar word for example). Maybe my banker had the "s" added. And you have to write to the Minister of Justice for that, whose secretaries probably laugh their heads off every day reading all the desperate mail they receive.

The legislation regarding this can be found here, in French. The text doesn't precise how many letters you can change, but does repeat that a name must remain as immutable as possible:

by Alex in Toulouse on Sat Jun 10th, 2006 at 05:38:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Go to: [ European Tribune Homepage : Top of page : Top of comments ]