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Our sensitivity about 'curse' words has changed with the times

Published: Saturday, Sept. 6 2003 1:29 a.m. MDT

Alex Nabaum, Deseret Morning News

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Pardon our French, as people used to say back in the days when they didn't use the following words quite so often, but we're going to now talk about the phrases "pissed off" and "that sucks."

Are these dirty words? Or just words?

And what about those other words, the ones that are still taboo enough to require dashes or abbreviations in newspapers such as this one? The s-word. The f-word. The f-word used as the all-purpose adjective. High-school teachers will tell you the halls are full of these words. As for "pissed off" — students say it so often "they're unaware they even say it," Highland High chemistry teacher Monica French says.

Expletives made headlines last month when the Grove Theater in Pleasant Grove canceled its production of Neil Simon's "Rumors" after the playwright refused to let the theater delete language it thought its audience would find offensive — "a lot of G-D and Jesus Christs," explains theater co-owner Gayliene Omary, plus "the f-word used very casually."

Acoustically speaking, words are just a series of hisses, pops and clicks. " 'Bad' words only have an effect if people think they're bad," says Marianna Di Paolo, chairwoman of the University of Utah Department of Linguistics. "Words are harmful if a culture regards them as harmful. Words become taboo because the culture associates taboo things with them.

In Victorian times, the word "leg" was considered risque, Di Paolo explains. At the dinner table, it wasn't acceptable to ask for a leg or a thigh of chicken, which is why people started using the term "dark meat." (People also put skirts on tables and beds, so the furniture legs wouldn't show.) Within our own cultural memory, the word "pregnant" was forbidden on "I Love Lucy" in the early 1950s.

Our sensitivity about words changes over time. Linguists call that "cognitive dialectology," says Rodolfo Celis, a linguist at Arcadia University. A word like "pissed" or "sucks," for example, might be considered crass and therefore inappropriate in "polite company." Then it starts seeping into more general usage, until finally there's a tipping point, Celis says, in which the word has become so mainstream that the people who still don't use it — often the older generation — start complaining that language has become coarser.

Eventually, though, a word that once could get your mouth washed out with soap will be regarded as just a word. Does that mean we've become desensitized and crass? More desensitized but also less neurotic about bodily functions and sex? Have the words simply become sounds, devoid of any reference to something taboo?

" 'Suck' is one that I am personally struggling with," says Celis, "as I perceive that it is shifting. When things are shifting there are some dangerous points of ambiguity." So recently, while teaching his freshman English composition class, in what he describes as "a lame attempt at inter-group affiliation," he said to his students: "I know some of these chapters kind of suck in the sense of exciting reading." The word sounded vulgar to his own ears, Celis admits. "But I genuinely think it is an almost neutral adjective for many freshmen."

Taboos evolve

Playwright Neil Simon's lawyer told Grove Theatre co-owner Gayliene Omary that "educated people" can handle the f-word, and that Utahns need to become desensitized. That got Omary thinking. "Maybe he's saying that educated people don't let these words have power. Maybe we give these words more power than they deserve." But Omary doesn't agree. If a person becomes desensitized to the f-word, she says, it means becoming desensitized to the disrespect she believes it embodies.

Robert Thompson, professor of media and culture at Syracuse University, recently heard a young Presbyterian pastor use the word "crap" from the pulpit. Thompson guesses the pastor didn't realize that the word once referred exclusively to excrement.

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