In Praise of Profanity by Michael Adams

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In his new book, In Praise of Profanity, Michael Adams speculates that slinging shit marked a transition point between primate and Homo sapiens. Only the smartest monkeys throw their feces. These chimps have not only mastered the necessary physiological mechanics, but seem to understand that the gesture expresses “fuck you.” Adams speculates that the hurling of shit is much like the hurling of epithets; the use of profanity, he writes, may have been “a crucial evolutionary step.” The research is suggestive at best, but the point lets Adams elaborate on his pet theme: profanity is an elevated form of expression, not an ignoble one.

In Praise of Profanity starts off on the wrong foot, with Adams stoking an anti-profanity adversary who is rare enough and quaint enough that the author’s tenacity is unseemly. There are a series of straw men, each more flimsy than the last: a good-hearted Christian pastor, a 14-year old who begins a no-cussing club at his middle school, the self-help guru who writes Cuss Control: The Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cussing. It’s a gratuitous fight and an unnecessary setup. Profanity doesn’t need to be rescued from priggish mores; it escaped long ago.

The heart of the book drops the pro/con debate to explore the myriad purposes that profanity serves. Careful thought (dry, systematic) and profane speech (salty, explosive) are inimical forms of expression, and Adams sets himself the difficult task of melding them together. There is something melancholic about encountering extreme words in a neutral text; bad words seem less bad after a very rational conversation about the precise ways in which they convey “bad.” In any case, what is lost in vim is gained in intellectual appreciation. In Praise of Profanity succeeds in conferring profundity on an underdog vocabulary.

The tiny group of words that comprise English profanity are astonishingly versatile. Profanity is pigeonholed as an expression of anger, but the same vocabulary can also create or sustain social bonds. Overhearing a stranger swear after she hangs up the phone creates a “frisson of intimacy,” in Adams’s phrase, as does cussing among friends, or dirty talk during sex. One study reports that profanity comprises nearly 100% of erotic vocalizations in the BDSM world, promoting trust in a form of intimacy that especially demands it. Adams cites a study on feces talk at Boy Scout Camp (!) that demonstrates how vulgar speech solidifies relationships among young Scouts. The group coheres through specialized vocabulary: they call their oatmeal “scroatmeal,” and memorize a catchy little fart typology. Granted, potty talk is not the same as profanity, but it threads its way through children’s speech in the same way that cussing does adults’, with scatological jokes forming the substrata of sibling loyalty.

A group that stakes its identity on profanity is usually trying to seem cool. Think of the teenagers in the Breakfast Club, the denizens of the fuckyeah Tumblr phenomenon, the lingua franca of Hollywood deals, where “fuck” is used like an audible comma. Profanity confers exceptionalism on its speaker, advertising his or her insouciance to public opinion. In the case of bathroom graffiti, profanity is the means by which graffitists proclaim their depravity. Adams surveys the research of Allen Walker Read, an Oxford-educated lexicographer who toured the Western US in the 1920s notating bathroom inscriptions; bathroom graffiti, Adams argues, needs profanity to achieve ultimate off-colorness. In the kind of competition where the best is the worst, profanity is indispensable.

Michael Adams

Michael Adams

Cussing may be mainstream, but some have more claim on it than others. “When I say that fuck is devulgarized, I don’t mean for everyone,” writes Adams. Indeed, the right to cuss, particularly in formal settings, falls along traditional lines of who has cultural power and who doesn’t. Filthy speech from the lips of a well-dressed older man registers as eccentricity; the same words from a homeless man on the street indicate depravity. Gender is also implicated: “Not swearing is part of the politeness structure that restricts girls and women but part of the power structure that enables boys and men.” Adams advises women to cuss more, and admiringly analyzes profanity in Liz Phair’s lyrics and Sarah Silverman’s comedy. He concludes that these women, along with the others he cites, use their swear words wisely. Carefully meted out, tuned to context and effect, they employ profanity with finesse. It’s the opposite of the Sopranos, where fucks erupt like an uncontrollable tic.

Adams pursues other lines of thought more arcane. He spends a great deal of time delineating the differences between profanity, obscenity, and vulgarity—there are many quotes from the OED—and writes at length about the relationship between profanity and its euphemisms, a topic that never coheres around a single point because each euphemism functions differently in relation to its unspoken referent. (The relationship between “fuck it” and “forget it” is different than that between “fuck” and “feck” or “flip” or “FCUK” or “f**k” or “$#%&”, and none of these quite match that between “Jesus Christ” and “Jiminy Cricket.”) Adams also makes much of the fact that profanity means something other than what the words literally express, a line of inquiry that gives him many opportunities to state the obvious: “When you say ‘shit!’ there isn’t excrement in the air.”

Profanity seems to have been ordinary by the 1960s. The New Yorker’s reticence to publish profanity is legendary; when they finally did, wrote Renata Alder, the words “leap[ed] off the page… dully, as a shattering of something already in smithereens.” If proper speech was in smithereens in the sixties, why write In Praise of Profanity now? Adams has an answer for that. This historical moment, he argues, is “The Age of Profanity”—a golden dusk in which bad words are still bad, but there for the taking. “To reach the zenith of its value,” writes Adams, “profanity has to be used as freely as possible while still carrying the vestiges of taboo and vulgarity.” It’s an opportune window, Adams insists, and hurry, before “cunt” and “shit” infiltrate the chatter of church potlucks. (He suspects that other swear words will appear, though they haven’t yet; no culture, it seems, is without words that serves the purpose of profanity.)

Adams’s enthusiastic discussion of profanity as “infix”—as in absofuckinglutely—or the phonetic joy of “clusterfuck,” almost convinced me my mouth wasn’t dirty enough. I was especially tempted by “Zounds!” It sounds like the screech of a cartoon character, but actually dates to the Middle Ages as an amalgamation of “God’s wounds.” Of course, the meaning hardly matters. What’s important is how and when it’s said, and that it feels good on the lips. A string of “fucks” is a deeply satisfying thing, no apology necessary.

Sasha Archibald is a curator and writer based in Los Angeles. More from this author →