October 21, 2005

Perhaps I have spent too much time wading through what passes these days for political discourse ... but let's try some definitions all the same, just for the sake of it: and these are actual ones I have seen in play, and at least in two cases quoted in full or part from a dictionary.
Fuck - lustful intercourse outside of marriage
Shit - filth before God's eyes, as in 'the best works of humans are as filthy rags before God'
Hell - where we go if we're naughty, and a bad place for god
Damn - what god does. Not you! Don't say it, that's vain!
Jesus Christ - appealing to the old guy for help, how dare we presume?
Hmmm ... those interpretations do come across as resentful, don't they? especially of the dominant forces in society? and, by extension, of those absolutes defining the justification of those dominant forces? So let's try some slightly different ones:

Fuck
Scientific expression: "copulate"
Common literal alternative: "have sex"
Associated meaning: "oh, that did not go well!"
The "cheat": closest I can find is the Italian "figo", or "figs", which is at least as old as Dante
No particular association with marriage at this point in time: although those using it are somewhat more likely to be unmarried than married (correlation, not causal relationship), to have more stable marriages when they are married, to fall within a certain socioeconomic level, and so on. Associated with many, many other similarly blunt words detailing anatomy (especially female: for some reason the equivalent male expressions seem to have more acceptability, perhaps because the male organs are the more visible?). Easily the single largest category.

Speculation: the negative association might arise out of the current traditional reaction of both (unmarried) parties to discovering one (often undesirable) by-product of the act: pregnancy. This would suggest that in a society where pregnancy is always desirable, an equivalent association of meaning would not exist.

Shit
Scientific expression: "defecate"
Common literal alternative: other words of slightly lower "taboo" factor ("crap"), or "kidspeak"
Associated meaning: "oh, that did not go well!" (slightly milder than "fuck")
The "cheat": "shh -- ugar" (or anything else that can be extrapolated from the first sound in this manner)
A blunt expression for what is commonly perceived as an unpleasant (taboo?) bodily function. No really commonly used alternative exists except specifically among/when speaking to young children. Otherwise the function is simply not discussed.

Speculation: the negative association might come from adult societal perception of the act of defecating -- except in the context of teaching the child. This would suggest that in a society where defecating is not a hidden action, an equivalent association of meaning would not exist.

Hell
Scientific expression: none
Common literal meaning: a place of eternal damnation
Associated meaning: "This is not good", "Boy, am I in trouble now!"
The "cheat": "heck"
Tends toward the situational rather than the personal (ie. describing the current situation rather than a judgement of any person involved). Apart from its literal religious meaning (which btw implies the existence of judgement, and implicitly that of ultimate good and evil), the word has almost completely taken on its associated meaning to the exclusion of any others. This has had the interesting side-effect of making the word rather more generally acceptable, except specifically among those more religiously oriented (as distinct from "spiritually").

Speculation: the negative association is obvious, but requires a culture which has an underlying judgemental perception of good/evil and appropriate reward/punishment. (Observational perception of good/evil is not sufficient.) As that focus is diluted (and especially as judgement appears to become less and less associated with some ultimate rule and more and more arbitrary), the word simultaneously may become more common and less meaningful.

Damn
Scientific expression: none
Common literal meaning: to be condemned by an absolute power to a place of eternal damnation
Associated meaning: "This is not good" (but increasingly its reverse: "Damn" as compliment, echoing "bad")
The "cheat": "darn", "dang"
Tends slightly more toward the personal than the situational, although this can gray toward general commentary (especially with the associated "it"). Again the literal religious meaning implies judgement, with slightly less good/evil connotation. Increasingly as that judgement has been popularly turned on its head, the word is revised to its opposite as the values with which it has been traditionally associated are recognised (perceived) as arbitrary and reversed. At this point the word appears to be almost completely acceptable except among those most religiously oriented (as distinguished from "spiritually").

Speculation: requires a culture which has an underlying judgemental perception of good/evil and appropriate reward/punishment. As perception of absolute good/evil is diluted and judgement is seen to be more arbitrary, the word will increasingly lose its negative connotations. Already it has taken on its reverse meaning among the counterculture (the more liminal members of society): those most likely to be the receptors of judgement based on a good/evil division they might not share. If general cynicism continues to increase, any negative meaning is quite likely to erode altogether except among those most religiously oriented ... who might themselves become the counterculture at that point.

Jesus Christ
Scientific expression: none
Common literal meaning: in the dominant Western Christian culture, the Son of God
Associated meaning: "This is not good", "I can't believe I just did that" (neg), self-annoyance or annoyance at others
The "cheat": "Gob", "Jebu", "H" (from "Jesus H Christ", sometimes understood to stand for "hell"), "Ke-rist"
Cored in the seventh commandment ("Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain"), and thus specifically in the ban on rendering any judgement except in God's name (and thus implicitly based on an absolute framework). Interestingly, as a vaguely unacceptable expression this is focused very personally, and specifically upon self-commentary or in personal, negative comparison with another -- almost as if the change of values from absolute to relative reflects in an increasing permission to judge oneself by one's own standards.

Speculation: absolutely requires a Christian perspective (although other culturally oriented equivalents do exist in other cultures rooted in a judgemental religious system). Unlikely to change further within the current societal context, since such change would also tend to remove all meaning from the words.


The pattern that comes across is that words most commonly agreed to be most unacceptable seem to be those words dealing with "taboo" or "hidden" functions: those things done by everyone, but not discussed. A different degree of unacceptability is directly tied to religious connotation: with the word acquiring more acceptability (and perhaps less usage?) as the religious association -- and specifically the societal framework by which judgement is rendered -- loses societal relevance as the sanction of absoluteness/impartiality and becomes perceived as more arbitrary.

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