Posted by Austin Morris on  UTC 2016-01-05 19:20

The circles of vulgarity

In this post we are going to look in our usual erratic fashion at the way we use 'bad words' in modern English.

Our attentive readers – of whom we have at least two on this site (double figures at last!) – our attentive readers will now be shouting at the screen, perhaps using some bad words themselves, to the effect that words themselves cannot be bad, they are after all just words and cannot be held responsible for the use to which their author puts them. And what, after all, is 'bad'?

Which, of course, is all entirely true. What we should say is rather: 'words whose use may be unacceptable in polite society and possibly even the eyes of the law'. The list of the latter grows longer by the day.

Before we can start we have to clean up our own terminology a bit. Let's divide up our 'bad words' into four types:

  1. Profanities. These invoke some religious object ('bloody', 'Oh my God') and would often be called simply 'cursing' or 'swearing'. In our heathen times only a few now take exception to such language: most Christians let the profanity of others wash over them, Muslims – as we are regularly reminded – take a more robustly theological view.
  2. Expletives. These represent explosions of anger, pain or frustration. The great mind or the saint can be distinguished from a member of the intemperate mob by the avoidance of expletives: on discovering that his little dog had accidentally destroyed the labours of several years, Sir Isaac Newton is supposed to have exclaimed, 'O Diamond, Diamond, thou little knowest the mischief done.'[1]In contrast, your less than saintly author, having fallen backwards from some height into a rocky stream-bed definitely made the naiads and dryads of that place blush and cover their ears.
    W.S. Gilbert described the limits of the socially permissible well:
    When you're lying awake with a dismal headache, and repose is taboo'd by anxiety, I conceive you may use any language you choose to indulge in, without impropriety; [2]
    In contrast, the transcriber of the Watergate tapes misrepresented Nixon and his team's casual vulgarities by marking them memorably in the transcripts as 'Expletive deleted'. 'Vulgarity deleted' would have been much more accurate.
  3. Reinforcers. Like expletives, reinforcers can represent explosions of anger, but they have more malice aforethought. A good recent example of the use of a finely honed reinforcer is Prince Philip's imprecation to a photographer who was taking rather a long time to set up his shot: 'Just take the fucking picture!' Well-judged and well-justifed swearing can indeed be a thing of beauty in the mouth of a 94-year-old ex-naval officer.
  4. Vulgarities. This last category contains a rag-bag of words and expressions that most people would find impolite, unacceptable, offensive or even would consider to be a form of hate speeech when directed against a person. Words used in profanities, expletives and reinforcers seldom reference their original object: people who say 'Oh my God' are not usually thinking of God in any way, nor was Prince Philip's expression of exasperation alluding to sexual congress.
    Vulgarities may be unacceptable either because the thing or action they reference is considered impolite or vulgar in the context in which it is used ('fuck'), or because its use is intended to characterise the thing or action they reference in a pejorative, critical or hurtful way ('nigger', 'queer', 'bastard'). As the politeness of the common tongue declines we hear and read more vulgarities in our everyday lives.
    We also accept that a lot of vulgar language – the word 'fuck' as in 'what the fuck', for example – is not being used with its original meaning of 'the act of darkness' or 'the beast with two backs'. It is here just a vulgarity like 'bloody', now completely disassociated from its original meaning and functioning simply as a reinforcer.

Nevertheless, there are still many places where we try to keep to certain ideas of decorum: public speaking and broadcasting for example, or writing or speaking in openly available media. Let's use the old expression 'polite circles' to represent these. How do we cope with bad language then?

Proxy words and phrases

One increasingly popular technique to suppress bad language in polite circles is to use proxy words and phrases. These have a long history but have become increasingly used as a way of insulating polite discourse from vulgarity.

In their historical form they began as substitute words ('proxy words') for words that must not be spoken aloud or written down.

The name of God is an example of this: all the names we use are in fact titles – 'God', 'the Lord', 'the Almighty' – which keep the subjects at a respectful distance from the superior being.

Exactly the same technique is used by feudal rulers to distance themselves from their subjects. The subject who called Darius (King of Kings) 'Darius' to his face, or who called Frederick the Great of Prussia 'Fritz' would draw no benefit from this assumed intimacy.

At the other end of the moral scale the Devil has a number of proxy names, particularly relevant since we are told in our childhood that we should not speak of the devil, lest he appear. Ah, the magic of words!

Nowadays we are using proxy words very frequently and in many different situations. How do we now say the unsayable and write the unwriteable?

Character masking

The most common technique in writing nowadays is to use 'character masking', for example: 'f*ck', 'f**k' or 'f***'.

The 'depth' of character masking is a study in itself: the first example here is probably too close to the referenced word for most people's taste. The last example just about works because readers know from the fact that masking is being used that the word is a 'bad' one. Whether the reader chooses 'fuck' or 'fart' has to depend on the context, so perhaps in this case the masking is at the limit of usability.

Of course, we also have total masking, as in '****' or '$*#*', in which the writer is just saying to the reader, this is a bad word and it doesn't matter which one. Such total masking was frequently used in drawings and cartoons. That was then: fifty years ago I doubt whether anyone would have used partial masking the way we use it today. Now that vulgarity has become such an acceptable part of the common tongue, we seem to feel more comfortable with the technique.

The problem with using masking to create proxy words is a semantic one: the proxy is unambiguously associated with the original word and, apart from the case of total masking, offers no protection from that word. How is 'n*gg*r' better than 'nigger'? Surely its meaning must be the same? Doesn't the fact that we choose not to write 'nigger' and write a proxy word 'n*gg*r' instead just signal that we need to use the word but, for whatever reason, don't really want to? You cannot signal 'nigger' without signalling it.

The use of the proxy word is just a way of protecting the sensibilities of the writer and not those of the reader: the reader is not protected from anything. To use the modern terminology, the use of such proxies is really just a form of 'virtue signalling' or 'moral preening' on the part of the writer.

By the way: we are deliberately ignoring 'word remodelling' in this account ('fcuk' or 'pr1ck'), which is usually just applied as a means of bypassing website filters.

The name of the word

Another proxy use, principally for spoken language but also to be seen written down, is the phrase of which 'the N-word' is an example. It functions in much the same way as character masking, but it references the use of the word, not the object itself. Everyone knows that in this case the word 'nigger' or 'negro' is meant, so once again it is there simply to demonstrate virtue signalling by the writer. We pass over jocular uses of the formulation where, depending on the context, 'the N-word' might mean something completely different: 'Nigel', for example.

When reading aloud a text containing a character masking, for example 'f**k', a person might replace the character masking with the 'F-word' proxy.

And another evasion proxy word to round off our collection: 'effing'. On its own, as in 'shut the effing door', just another simple proxy. In that phrase describing someone using bad language in a non-specific sense, 'effing and blinding', it is a quite pleasant descriptive phrase.

We cannot leave the subject of proxy words without at least a mention of the formulation made famous by the trial in 1960 concerning D.H. Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover under the Obscene Publications Act (1959). The trial made the phrase 'four-letter word' famous, a formulation that elegantly included a wide range of words that were felt to be unacceptable in polite circles at the time and which was a rough equivalent of our mask '****'. However, I can't remember when I last read or heard someone using the phrase 'four-letter word' to avoid repeating a vulgarity – perhaps it is falling out of favour as our public tolerance of vulgarity increases.

Direct and reported speech.

Direct speech is under the full control of the author. If the text is in a context in which vulgarity is not a problem for the potential readership then a statement such as 'If these people have nothing constructive to say then they should just shut the fuck up' may be felt to express the right degree of firm resolve. If you are writing for a more delicate readership then '...they should just shut the f*** up' is no real improvement. The writer is just virtue signalling by obscuring an obscenity they themselves chose. If you can't write 'fuck', then don't write it – find a more elegant was to express your bad temper.

Indirect speech is also under the full control of the reporter: 'He said "Shut the fuck up!"'. How you report what someone else said or wrote depends on your audience.

Since you yourself are not uttering the vulgarity, in just reporting someone else's linguistic deficiency there is really no reason for reticence. If, however, reticence is needed then using character masking is as bad an idea as it is in direct speech. As in our previous example, 'He said "Shut the f*** up!"' protects no one, just publicly signals the writer's own fastidiousness. Much more honest would be to reformulate the statement in indirect speech: 'He told me angrily to shut up [using a vulgarity]'.

These stains will not wash out

Sometimes you cannot – or should not – try to civilise bad language. The following ancient joke (its age attested by its reference to Aristotle Onassis) can only be left intact or not told at all.[3]

A young man went into a bar in New York. He saw Aristotle Onassis sitting at the bar. He went over to him and introduced himself politely.
—Hello, Mr Onassis. My name is John Green. I hope you don't mind my disturbing you?
—Not at all, John, nice to meet you.
—I wonder if you would mind doing me a favour, Mr Onassis?
—Sure, what is it, John?
— I'm expecting some important business clients to join me here in a minute. I have a really important deal to arrange with them. When you leave, would you mind coming over to our table and saying hello to me? Perhaps you could just ask how my wife and kids are? That would really impress them.
—OK, John. Glad to help a young man do a deal. When you need an oil tanker you know who to call. I'll be leaving when I've finished my drink.
A moment later, the young man's clients joined him at the table in the corner. True to his word, as he was leaving Onassis came over to their table.
—Hey, John, didn't see you there! How are your doing? Wife and kids OK?
—Oh hell, it's you, Onassis! What the fuck are you doing here? Just fuck off and leave me in peace! Can't you see I'm doing some important business here?


  1. ^ To a dog, who knocked over a candle which set fire to some papers and thereby 'destroyed the almost finished labours of some years'; in Thomas Maude 'Wensley-Dale … a poem' (1772) st. 23 n. (probably apocryphal).
    Source: The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Fourth Edition, Oxford, 1992.
  2. ^ From the Lord Chancellor's 'Nightmare' song in Iolanthe (1882), by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.
  3. ^ As one of our heroes on this blog once put it so perfectly:
    Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. / Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.
    Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, London:Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd. New York: Harcourt, BRACE & Company, Inc., 1922, proposition 7.

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