Free speech and the death of the dirty words

Back in the 1950s when somebody said “fuck,” it meant something. It was cool and offensive and could stun people. But “fuck,” like “cunt” and “cocksucker,” are dying words. They are quickly ceasing to have any shock value. Interestingly, by not allowing rules to be imposed that restrict the use of dirty words, the First Amendment helps make dirty words impotent.

Simply by frequently using words, they become acceptable. Before the AIDS epidemic, words for birth control devices were taboo in the northeastern United States. Now terms such as “rubbers,” “condoms” and “rain jackets” are frequently used.

“Bugger” and “bloody” will raise eyebrows in England, but not in the United States. “Sonofabitch,” “bastard,” “damn” and “hell” are accepted as standard exclamations. Frequent use has rendered many words meaningless or stripped them of their cultural shock value. Repetition has made them dull.

There are five basic categories of dirty words, many of which have already been castrated as a result of the First Amendment. Depending on context, the words can shift between categories.

Profane words generally deride sacred things. “Bloody,” as pertaining the blood of Christ, would fall into this category. Profanity often overlaps with the next category, blasphemy.

Blasphemy is the act of speaking irreverently of God or the sacred. “Goddammit” and “Jesus Christ!” fall into this category.

Vulgarity is unrefined and coarse speech. Examples of vulgarities are “fart,” “shit” and “asshole.” Most vulgarities are concerned with excretion or defecation.

Slurs disparage particular groups of people based on their ethnicity, race, gender, economic status or age. “Dago,” “spic,” “nigger,” “gook,” “wop,” “kike,” “cracker” and “chink” are all examples of slurs. “Faggot” is a particularly vicious slur referring to the bundles of sticks used when homosexuals were burned alive at the stake. Hate speech codes have come into vogue to disparage their use. But codes will only prolong their existence rather than allowing the First Amendment to bleed these offensive words of their venom.

Because of Americans’ conservative views on sex, obscenities have been the most controversial words. Obscenities typically refer to genitalia or acts of sex. “Fuck” is one of the most prevalent. Thanks to popular culture, “fuck” has been basically rendered meaningless. “Motherfucker,” “cunt” and “cocksucker” still retain part of their meanings and shock factor. Gradually, as obscenities are more frequently used, they should become like “dork” and “schmuck” – both euphemisms for the penis but not considered obscenities.

This is not to say Americans can say whatever they want. Speech in the United States is not entirely free. The Supreme Court has restricted defaming or libelous speech, fighting words and words of imminent danger. Americans are not totally free to use obscene speech on publicly owned means of communication.

By not imposing laws that restrict the speech of such words, the words are more likely to be incorporated into the general lexicon and lose their ability to stigmatize. Banning the use of such words prolongs their lifespans as offensive words. The First Amendment has helped to erode dirty words.

Eventually the puritanical manacles will be removed from dirty words. The United States has certainly come a long way from 13th century France, where foul-mouthed offenders were to “be branded upon the face with a hot iron for a perpetual memorial of their crime, and Ö be set in a public place in the high stocks.” People who use dirty words are no longer always considered lowbrows or lacking a sufficient vocabulary. Because of the First Amendment, we live in a country where we can basically say whatever we please. And at the risk of offending somebody, I have to say that’s pretty fucking cool.

Karl Noyes is a member of The Minnesota Daily editorial board. He welcomes comments at [email protected]