It’s time to talk about swearing. As The New York Times recently noted, for the first time, three of the top-ten pop music hits incorporated the word “fuck” prominently in their choruses, including Cee-Lo Green’s gleeful “Fuck You,” which has been cleaned up for radio as “Forget You.” The Times treated this event as a cause for mild concern: Swearing has become more common—Melissa Leo even swore at the Oscars!—and what’s more, the phenomenon is now running the risk of devaluing swear words. Yet this phenomenon is as predictable as it is harmless. If actors like Melissa Leo were not erupting with profanity at the Oscars, it is that which would require analysis. And what makes it so hard for us to see it this way is, of all things, modernity.
The rub is writing, an artifice only 5,500 years old, which came along after humans had been speaking for about 145,000 years before. Writing is the basis for modern civilization as we know it, but in enshrining language on the page in codified, unchanging form, it creates an illusion. When we see signs of language changing in ways that it always has since the emergence of Homo sapiens, we see it as a digression from that norm shining statically in print—as a devolution rather than an evolution, as it were.
One reads with bemusement at scientists once perplexed at unearthing enormous bones of creatures now nonexistent. Between the teachings of the Bible and the brevity of a human lifespan, it took centuries to grasp that the world’s fauna and flora have been in an eternal and imponderably long state of transformation. On language, the layman is today often in a similar state of perplexity. A language, too, is as inherently changeable as the lump in a lava lamp. However, print lends a sense that “real” language doesn’t change, and we live too briefly to see much but hints otherwise.
Hints, of course, we do see: When Ginger Rogers says in an old movie that a man “made love to” her we know she means what we would express as “come on to.” However, we do not live long enough to know that two hundred years ago obnoxious meant “subject to injury” or that eight hundred years ago quaint meant “clever.”
In the same way, in a lifetime we cannot easily see that what start as colorful meanings inevitably go beige. Language is all about creeping numbness, jokes wearing thin, feeling devolving into gesture. Terrible once meant truly horrific. The will we use to mark the future once meant that you quite robustly “willed” to do something, but diluted into just indicating that sometime you would.
Hence a burnt steak as terrible, a good movie as awesome, trivial terms like shopaholic based on the glum source alcoholic, and just as naturally, we now have snowpocalypses, and even what we process as irresponsibly casual usages of Holocaust. Profanity is hardly immune to this inexorable weakening, and as such, what we process as a peculiar encroachment of curse words into the public sphere is actually a matter of the words ceasing to be curses in any coherent sense.
Of course, there are societies where certain words remain forbidden for millennia, when a societal taboo exerts a block upon the natural process of dilution. Taboos once kept English curse words truly profane, but the cult of authenticity key to modern Western identity has vastly weakened those taboos. Hence in recent decades, the grand old four-letter words and their ilk have been swept into the vanillafication hopper.
When Bono said fucking brilliant at the Golden Globes ceremony in 2004 or Melissa Leo said fucking easy, they were using the word as a rendition of very that carries an extra component of lowest-common-denominator, incontestable genuineness. In all languages, there are ways of striking that note: Others in English include using -in’ rather than -ing or eliding subject pronouns in phrases like Hope so rather than I hope so. Fucking brilliant today urgingly connotes, whether or not we would put it in so many words, that something gratifies in a way that we all can empathize with, gosh darn it, despite possible quibbles as to whether it should be brilliant—the implied quibble in Bono case for example being the questionable artistic value of the award in question.
As the FCC ruled regarding Bono, his usage did not refer to “sexual or excretory organs or activities.” To wit, its meaning has changed despite its etymology, and it is no longer, properly speaking, a “curse” at all. It is more informal than profane. Modern popular culture makes this ever clearer. In a recent hour of two NBC situation comedies, three characters erupted with fuck or fuckin’ and were artfully bleeped (not to mention full frontal male nudity studiously blurred on both shows). There is now a set of words we title “curses,” studiously treating them as unsuitable for young ears, often underreporting our own usage of them, and watching fictional characters using them just as we do and bleeped as a giggly genuflection to their ever more mannered classification as “bad.” There is no reason to expect that they will be declassified as “curses” in the sense of mere taxonomy—form and ritual, if not substance, hold on in language with a vice-like grip (when we say Goodbye we are mouthing what began as medievals saying God Be With You). What is changing is how we treat these words we term “curses,” using them in a much broader segment of public life than makes any actual sense for words deemed “bad.”
Because popular music is all about channeling intensity and authenticity, the only question about the use of the F-word in songs like Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” and Pink’s “Fuckin’ Perfect” is why it took so long. Cee-Lo’s song is especially a sign of the times in that it is a sunny little ditty in major key.
Modern English does have true curse words, however: Currently the main one is the N-word. One indication of its true power is that it is considered more de rigueur to euphemize it in print than fuck, and this is because a genuine taboo does continue to reign in American discourse when it comes to race. The earliest recorded curses were mainly “oaths” about religion, euphemized along the lines of Zounds for “by his (Christ’s) wounds.” Starting in the eighteenth century with the rise of bourgeois culture, the respectable person was to sidestep direct references to matters “down there”: hence rest room and white and dark meat to avoid mentioning breasts and thighs.
In our transitional era, we pay lip service to these previous poxes, aware that one is technically not supposed to take the Lord’s name in vein and that ass is a “bad word” despite that during those same two prime-time sitcom episodes, the latter was casually uttered twice while people popped off with “Ohmigod” a good three times. In our reality, with racism as genuinely taboo, the N-word is truly profane: Even the randiest, most come-as-you-are non-black person hesitates to utter it, and would rather their child have measles than be caught yelling it across a schoolyard. As an indication of plus ça change, however, the use of the N-word as a term of affection among blacks shows that even it is hardly immune to dilution—as well as that increasingly, non-black teens are using it in the same way.
Because change is gradual, the transition of our other “curse” words to informality is not yet a full one. Questions will continue, for example, as to whether children should be exposed to them and at what age. Even here, however, modern twelve-year-olds of many demographics use “curse” words among themselves with a fluency that further deflates any meaningful classification of these words as generally “inappropriate.” The main issue is that in real language, yesterday’s hot stuff is always today’s papier-mache. Hence language change is not only a matter of people giving up prithee and forsooth, but one of The New Yorker printing shit and ordinary people texting WTF 24/7 and dancing at weddings to a song called “Fuck You.” Zounds indeed.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The New Republic.