Let's Get Profane

Swearing is often seen as a societal taboo that defines class or social level. Let's be honest, though: Profanity has more bark than bite.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: Profanity is good for the soul. It encourages you to let out frustrations that might have driven you crazy, and (if used correctly) it might just help you win an argument. These reasons were probably front of mind for Willian Barboza, who wrote three profanities on the traffic ticket that the city of Liberty, New York gave him. (He also changed the town's name to "Tyranny.") The result of that profanity—ironic, considering the town's name—is that Barboza was arrested and jailed for the action. After a lengthy court case, the town was found to have violated his civil rights, which is definitely a better middle finger than writing a couple of four-letter words on a ticket. In honor of Barboza's successful legal fight, we're gonna talk about profane gestures and swears today. Warning to kids and those with low tolerance of profanity: Yes, there are swears in this one, but fewer than you'd think. — Ernie @ Tedium


The size of the fine that you'll face if you visit Arlington, Virginia and let out a torrent of swears in a public space. The fine is legal under Virginia law, which has long had a law on the books banning swearing in public. At the Virginia Beach oceanfront, in fact, the city has "no cursing" signs up around the boardwalk. The city has enforced those signs, too, receiving $6,500 in fines during 2013.

No swearing

(Bill Barber/Flickr)

Why cursing like a mofo is often good communication

Whatever Virginia Beach's opinion of dropping a couple four-letter bombs in conversation, they definitely have their place. The harmless-yet-taboo nature of profanities makes them perfect vessels for getting a point across.

“This language fulfills emotional needs on two levels: my need, as a speaker, to cope with some emotion, like fear or surprise, and it conveys that feeling very effectively to someone else.” Dr. Timothy Jay told BeliefNet about swearing in 2006. “It allows us to express our emotions without physicality….Once you can tell people ‘I hate you,’ you no longer have to put yourself in jeopardy to prove it.”

Jay is a good person to talk to about this shit: The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts cognitive psychologist wrote the first major books about this topic all the way back in 1992, years before Samuel L. Jackson had perfected the form. And back in 2013, he co-wrote a study about how swearing affects children.

Simply put—even in cases where kids are using the bad words—there's simply a natural reason for these words to exist, and fighting the tide of curse words is inevitability a losing battle. You can figure out why these words are there, but you're better off accepting that it's a fact of life, Jay notes.

"Try to figure out first why the kids are using this kind of language," he told NPR last year. "Expect it to be there. Expect your kids to be angry and frustrated at times, and sometimes this language seems kind of natural to them."

But the other thing to keep in mind here is context: If you're in pain, an F-bomb is a great way to mentally process the pain. If you're stressed out at the office or fighting a parking ticket, profanity is a great way to deflect the anger without resorting to violence. But if you use a profanity against a marginalized group who can't defend themselves or use racially offensive terms, you're just an asshole.

"I'll tell you, Lyndon, the vice presidency isn’t worth a pitcher of warm piss."

— John Nance Garner, a vice president during Franklin D. Roosevelt's first two terms, describing the value of his appointed role in an aptly profane way to then-future VP Lyndon B. Johnson. Garner, a conservative Democrat serving under a liberal president, probably had good reason to complain about his lot in life—he opposed the financial aspects of the New Deal. Fun fact about this quote: For decades, it was recounted using the phrase "warm spit," despite the fact it's far more likely he said "warm piss," because we clearly can't handle the idea of our vice presidents referring to urine in casual conversation.

Five common American hand gestures that are probably offensive to some other culture

  1. The thumbs-up. During the opening days of the Iraq conflict, American troops saw a lot of these, but it's not clear whether they were compliments or insults. The reason? In the Middle East the gesture is the equivalent of the middle finger in the United States, but the meaning apparently was shifting at the time due to all the western influence on the region.
  2. Putting your hands in your pocket. Apparently, this gesture is seen as seen as a sign of disrespect in some countries, including South Korea, where Bill Gates found himself at the center of a minor international controversy over an errant hand-shake.
  3. The devil horns. This isn't offensive in many Latin and Mediterranean countries because of its relation to the devil—rather, it's offensive because it implies that you're having relations with another man's wife. Known family man Silvio Berlusconi has been seen using this gesture in this specific sense.
  4. Outstretching a hand with your fingers spread apart. In Greece and some parts of Africa, this gesture is basically another way of saying that you want to smudge poo in someone's face. Consider another gesture.
  5. Crossing your fingers. If you do this in Vietnam, you're not hoping for good luck—you're making a crass reference to a certain female body part. You might have better luck if you cross your arms instead.

"Many people feel that profanity is self-evidently corrupting, especially to the young. This claim is made despite the fact that everyone is familiar with the words, including most children, and that no one has ever spelled out how the mere hearing of a word could corrupt one's morals."

— Author and psychologist Steven Pinker, writing a defense of profanity in a 2007 essay for The New Republic—specifically highlighting the FCC's long-running battle against the swears on live television. In his book The Stuff of Thought, Pinker highlights the ways that certain subject matters and taboos have become commonly associated with profanity—specifically, sex, religion, and bodily functions—while other topics sort of miss out.

Lately, I've found myself taking common swears and turning them on their head—not necessarily because I'm anti-swearing or anything like that, but I find it to be a great creative exercise.

For example, randomly saying the word "pizza" where I might say the F-word, or using the phrase "son of a jerk" in casual conversation, is a great way to keep the old standbys fresh, so when I do use them, they feel a little more effective to me.

Society as a whole, I think, does this as well. A term like "Netflix and chill" doesn't come about because the world needed another sexual euphemism—we have plenty, thank you very much. The reason these terms surface in society is because we simply get bored with the old ways of saying the same things. "Netflix and chill" certainly isn't as bad as some of the other phrases you might run into in your average day, but it has a linguistic freshness that often feels missing from your run-of-the-mill profanities, which is why we're so willing to experiment.

Swearing is great, but when you curse too much, you dull the nerves. And that's a bad thing, because eventually, you don't give a single fuck. Where's the fun in that?

Ernie Smith

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Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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