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|September 11-17, 2008
The profane and the profound
Linguist Steven Pinker drops the F-bomb on America
by Dylan Otto Krider
Humans have three zoologically unusual traits,” says the Harvard linguist Steven Pinker, author of The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, “open-ended understanding of how to manipulate the environment, social cooperation among non-relatives and grammatical language.”
If language is what separates us from the animals, understanding the psychology that gives rise to this apparent universal grammar is to understand what makes us human, as his book sets out to do. What aspect of language could be more human than cursing?
Profanity is not just a means of conveying intense emotion, but how one provides constructive criticism to other drivers and communicates with customer service representatives. Cussing can lend flair to Tarantino’s dialogue and gritty realism to Scorsese mafia scripts. It’s what makes Chris Rock funny, and alt-weekly writing so edgy and irreverent.
In a chapter devoted to the seven words you can’t say on television, Pinker gives us the most intellectually rigorous examination of a cuss word since On Bullshit. In it, Pinker shows how most slurs correlate to excretions and effluvia. They are, on a sliding scale: excrement, urine, semen, farts, vomit, burping and spitting. Yet, in the lexicon of four-letter words, it is the F-bomb that reigns supreme.
It makes evolutionary sense that the least sanitary should become the most shunned, but unlike the many by-products on Pinker’s list, the act of fucking is thought of fondly, despite the bodily fluids involved. So why should a “dirty fucking hippie” be worse than one that is merely unclean? Desirability is highly valued, even among the free love set.
“Fuck you doesn’t mean ‘Have sex,’” Pinker says. “In fact, despite being the most prominent English curse, no one really has any strong intuitions about what it literally means. In reality, Fuck you doesn’t mean anything (literally), but developed historically from Damn you, just as the meaningless Close the fucking door, What the fuck are you doing, I don’t give a fuck and Holy fuck! developed from Close the damn door, What in the Hell are you doing? I don’t give a damn and Holy Mary… These idioms developed when Anglo culture became increasingly secularized and religious swearing lost its sting. People substituted sexual words into those idioms to get the same emotional rise out of listeners, even though they made no literal sense.”
As mores changed, so did our swearing, and “fucking” happens to shock our modern sensibilities more than offending the One True God. Thus, when Ed Sanders formed the influential magazine in the ’60s advocating free sex, free expression and psychedelics, with the motto “I’ll print anything,” he appropriately named it Fuck You.
As we all learn — over and over and over again — screwing is not all sweetness and light. Pinker says, “It’s a modern myth that sex is, in general, a source of harmless pleasure. Sometimes it is, but it can also be associated with exploitation, illegitimacy, incest, jealousy, spousal abuse, cuckoldry, desertion, feuding, harassment and rape.”
Sex doesn’t just lead to pillow talk, but full voicemail boxes, slashed tires, jail time and, if you’re not careful, infants.
“It’s no surprise that people in all cultures have strong emotions about it — emotions that can color words about sexuality, making the words available to speakers who want to get a rise out of their listeners.”
Glancing through RopeofSilicon.com’s “Top Ten F-Bomb Movie Moments,” we get an idea of FU’s versatility. In Glengary, Glen Ross, when Alec Baldwin’s character declares, “Fuck You, that’s my name! You know why, mister? Because you drove a Hyundai to get here today, I drove an $80,000 BMW,” he is casting himself in the role of penetrator, and the hapless salesmen as penetratees, soon to be tossed away like a used Kleenex. If it is a proposition for lovemaking, Baldwin is saying, I am the “Top,” and you underlings the “Bottoms”.
When Cheney told Patrick Leahy to go “fuck himself” on the Senate floor, he takes it a step further, portraying the esteemed Senator from Vermont as so reliably his bitch that he would demean himself on command.
We can see that some terms for the act, however, are more offensive than others. “Intercourse” does not have quite the bite. As C.S. Lewis says, “As soon as you deal with [sex] explicitly, you are forced to choose between the language of the nursery, the gutter, and the anatomy class.”
Pinker spends some time considering how terms are softened through the use of euphemisms and dysphemisms, but another dividing line appears to be whether or not a word is transitive. As the Anthropologist Ashley Montagu put it, fucking is “a transitive verb for the most transitive of human actions.”
You bang someone, hump them, screw them, but you sleep with someone, have sex with, make love to them (in this case, acting upon one in the sense of a masseuse).
If it’s not about what you say, but how you say it, you can hardly blame anyone for taking offense. In so many words, no one wants to get fucked, but a harmless fuck never did nothing to nobody.
On the Bill:
The Eyes of Babylon plays through Sunday, Sept. 7, at the New Denver Civic Theatre, 721 Santa Fe Dr., 303-309-3773, www.denvercivic.com.
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