By Mary Croke

"Nuts!" my dad would say.

"Jeez!" my brothers would say. "Heck!"  "Darn!"

It may sound like I grew up in a pretty genteel environment, but one day a stepmother moved in, and she was a very colorful lady.  "Good Lord and Heavenly Father!" she would say when she'd been pushed too far.  At the time this was something to be feared.  But as I matured (picking up good, serviceable words of my own) I came to appreciate it.  It simply had to be the most marvelously long four-letter word I'd ever heard, and it was _hers_.

Then one day, years later, a terrible thing happened.  I overheard my beautiful infant daughter studiously repeating something she'd just heard from the grownups:  "Oh!  Damn!  Oh!  Damn!  Oh! Damn!"


Well.  That's how it is.  If cusswords are so basic babies need to bone up on them while learning the language, that says something about profanity's place in human affairs.  But what?

Well, I did a little reading.

Apparently, profanity serves to vent strong feeling and to express contempt.  It acts as a surrogate for destructive physical action.  It is considered a connection between our "animality" (sex, hunger, aggression, vulnerability) and our reason.  It helps us tolerate the big job of being decent most of the time. And Freud (Mr. Sex-and-aggression himself) is credited with saying that the first civilized person was the one who hurled a curse instead of a rock or spear.

When it comes to our profanities, say the folks who watch these things, we prefer extremes on the sacred/profane scale.  In the greatest and most luxuriant abundance are words that refer to anatomy and physical functions. This apparently pleases us.  Some others go to the divinity end of things (e.g., "God," "hell").  And there are a few independents (e.g., "stupid," "good grief").

Context counts.  What's OK for a high schooler is not OK for a preschooler.  The communication basics at, say, Mother's garden party would hardly do at a construction site.  Whom we're talking to matters, and where, and when.

Another characteristic is that, like the rest of language, cusswords can change with time.   What is taboo to one generation is often acceptable to the next, which wants its _own_ taboos.

And some changes occur quickly.  My favorite example is "suck."   Does anybody remember when this sounded worse than its celebrated partner in rhyme?  Within a year or two it quietly evolved into its present, less virulent form.  It looks like there's only so much room at the top.

 But there's a disturbing trend in the past few years.  We're becoming desensitized to our favorite
profanities.  They have become so acceptable in common speech that they're losing their shock value, their vitality. Like some words abused by imprecision (e.g., "racist," "fascist," "fairness," "rights"), our cusswords are losing their ability to do their job.  We still manage to vent successfully with whatever's at hand -- we're not too fussy on this point -- but how can we show our contempt?  How can we "express" ourselves?

Well, I did a little thinking.

Maybe we could go in for ethnic and sexist (etc.) slurs; can't get too much more offensive than _that_. Problem:  they have rather limited utility, plus they make us look totally stupid (never the idea) _and_ get us creamed.  Better to look elsewhere....

Maybe we could try flipping the finger, that mother of male dominance gestures.  This has certainly stood the test of time, perhaps because it's nonverbal.  Its use is recorded as far back as the ancient Greeks (_"dactylos"_) and Romans (_"digitus impudicus"_).  Problem: it doesn't travel well -- it needs to be _seen_.  ("Dactylos!" one could sniff contemptuously into the phone....  No, I don't think so.)

But at the bottom of things, so to speak, we are still verbal creatures, looking for those special words for those special moments.  And we're inventive.  Who knows?  Maybe we'll come up with something that's every bit as wonderful and mysterious as my stepmother's favorite cussword.

I do know one thing.  It's time to conduct a little experiment.   Next time I see my stepmother, maybe there's something I can do to provoke a repeat performance from her.   Unfortunately, with my kind of luck, she may have been keeping up with the times.