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7/21/15

Some Sh*t to Read on Language Taboos Now and Then

Because of my age, I found an article by John McWhorter engaging.  I offer it as one way to understand some of the dynamics of modern society. I think only people of a certain age, whose long memories compare past and present, can truly appreciate this article. The young think today's language is as it has always been or don't think about it at all.

When i was growing up, my parents taught me the difference between belly and stomach, or tummy. To say belly was crude. The same went for butt and damn. Four letter words s*, f*, and c* were wholly uncivilized. To say Get screwed was a very graphic reference to intercourse and This sucks could only refer to fellatio, both phrases unacceptable in polite society. When a boy, I read a headline that shocked the nation: Truman Calls MacArthur SOB.

Language has also shifted apart from taboo words. Here are a few examples, which also reflect some of today's social-political realities. Although not verboten, these are about equality of sexual preference, gender, and the market place. In the 1960s' San Francisco Bay Area, I watched TV coverage of street demonstrations with homosexuals declaring themselves gay. Before that, somebody gay was very happy. (Fred Astaire starred in a 1934 movie titled the Gay Divorcee.) Today's unisex server was once a waitress or waiter. When bringing the menu to your table, the server greets you with, How are you guys? (Guys is also unisex as well as market-place egalitarian.)  Not too long ago if a store employee (read: associate) said Thank you, the reply was, You are welcome. Today it is Thank you! with its reminder that clerk and customer are on equal social footing. In the market place we observe these egalitarian niceties while ignoring the growing gap between the very rich and the middle class, not to mention the poor. Language can mask as well as highlight.

The writer below traces a historical shift in language taboos. In religious times, any invocation of religious words reflected profoundly on the manners of the speaker.  (Thou shall not take the name of The Lord thy God in vain.) As society moved into an industrial age, sensibility shifted against body description, even to the point that Victorian people used table cloths to cover the legs of tables as the very word, legs, suggested female anatomy. The author observes that today taboos have once again shifted, this time into the political arena surrounding ethnic and cultural diversity.

Here are excerpts from the article. Its author, Dr John McWhorter, teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music at Columbia University.  As a scientist of language McWhorter takes no stand on his findings. I will add that I recall theaters of my boyhood with their Time Magazine newsreels and the newscaster saying, Time Marches On, and so it does.
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. . . anthropologists visiting from Mars. They might conclude that Americans today are as uptight about profanity as were our 19th-century forbears in ascots and petticoats. It’s just that what we think of as “bad” words is different. To us, our ancestors’ word taboos look as bizarre as tribal rituals. But the real question is: How different from them, for better or worse, are we?

In terms of language, we’re actually quite a bit like our ancestors. We are hardly beyond taboos; we just observe different ones.

At street level and in popular culture, Americans are freer with profanity now than ever before—or so it might seem to judge by how often people throw around the “F-bomb” or use a certain S-word of scatological meaning as a synonym for “stuff.” Or consider the millions of fans who adore the cartoon series “South Park,” with its pint-size, raucously foul-mouthed characters.

Still, a sense reigned that one kept the “bad words” out of polite society. The same year that Ginger Rogers was substituting tummy for belly on Broadway, Cole Porter put the SOB term into a song lyric sung by a woman in “Gay Divorcee”—but with the joke that when the singer uttered the final word in the expression, a drum smack from the pit drowned her out. Certain proprieties were assumed in public settings.

Today, it is the N-word that such a couple would smack down with precisely this indignation. The response is the same; only the issues of concern have changed.

In medieval English, at a time when wars were fought in disputes over religious doctrine and authority, the chief category of profanity was, at first, invoking—that is, swearing to—the name of God, Jesus or other religious figures in heated moments, along the lines of “By God!” Even now, we describe profanity as “swearing” or as muttering “oaths.”

It might seem like a kind of obsessive piety to us now, but the culture of that day was largely oral, and swearing—making a sincere oral testament—was a key gesture of commitment. To swear by or to God lightly was considered sinful, which is the origin of the expression to take the Lord’s name in vain (translated from Biblical Hebrew for “emptily”).

The need to avoid such transgressions produced various euphemisms, many of them familiar today, such as “by Jove,” “by George,” “gosh,” “golly” and “Odsbodikins,” which started as “God’s body.” “Zounds!” was a twee shortening of “By his wounds,” as in those of Jesus. A time traveler to the 17th century would encounter variations on that theme such as “Zlids!” and “Znails!”, referring to “his” eyelids and nails.

 ‘Taboos are about what we fear. In one era, it is the wrath of God; in another, hanky-panky; in ours, the defamation of groups.’

  . . .  it’s useful to recall that, when it comes to profanity, there were once people who considered themselves every bit as enlightened as we see ourselves today, with the same ardent and appalled sense of moral urgency. They were people who said “Odsbodikins” and did everything they could to avoid talking about their pants.

Found here

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