December 2013: Today, expletives have entered the mainstream and more women are swearing than ever before. I explore the pro-profanity phenomenon.
When my friend Jordyn Steig posted on Facebook the video-gone-viral of psycho Pratik Hota kicking a kitten, another animal-loving friend Ankush went ballistic: “Son of a bitch motherfucking bastard,” he vented. Below on this comments stream, a girl called Priyanka asked him to keep the colourful words for later. “Those words insult me as a woman.”
“That’s prissy,” I thought. While I am, arguably, the foulest-mouthed woman I know, most of my women friends swear freely and fully, and wouldn’t be easily insulted by what was obviously a rant. But that's perhaps because I choose to surround myself with potty-mouthed women. To my mind, they are casual, fun, free and fearless, empowered, not easily shocked, (often) sexually liberated, and are unconcerned with the traditional roles and language prescribed to the demure fairer sex. To quote a New Zealand study 'What Not to Swear: The Acceptability of Words in Broadcasting': “Those that state they have no religion tend to be more accepting than those of religious belief”. These are just the kind of women I love and respect.
Needless to say, none of our families was thrilled when our tongues began flourishing—while Shibani remembers having to rinse her mouth with soap water more than once, my parents disallowed 12-year-old me from going for a class picnic because I had called someone an "idiot". Sangeeta started with ‘basket’ for ‘bastard’, and was punished for that too. And even though I’m now 30, when I recently decided to use my naturally spiced language on social media (after much deliberation, weighing my personal-professional positioning in my internet footprint versus having an ‘integrated personality’, Jordyn’s term for being true to ones self in all situations)—I had to explain my reasons to my astute aunt.
Language evolves all the time, and faster than ever before in the information age. Words are getting added in to traditional bastions of language, the hallowed Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries at a frantic pace; Urban Dictionary documents crowd-sourced new words and phrases as they enter the English language. When Rhett Butler said, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," to Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 film Gone With The Wind, it was among the first uses of profanity in a major American film. 75 years later, the word ‘damn’ doesn’t raise an eyebrow, in a phenomenon called ‘dysphemism treadmill’, where vulgarities become inoffensive and commonplace. A finding of the UK study about language 'Delete Expletives?' by Andrea Millwood-Hargrave was that while younger respondents were not as concerned as others about the use of many swear words, they were particularly likely to consider terms of racial abuse as "very severe"—a clear indication that filters of what and how much is insulting and why are changing.
Language purists will be loath to admit this, but communication with profanity is particularly nuanced and complex. Expletives pepper my language as adjectives, nouns, verbs and adverbs; and roll off my tongue as expressions of anger, of joy, of boredom, of sadness, of nothing in particular and of absolutely everything. (Janine's contention is that abuses make our language lazy—an easy go-to instead of more complex and nuanced words.)
Lit theory 101: our understanding of each other’s language is through a universal agreement on what each word means. However, in the case of swearwords, the context, intonation, subject matter, person speaking, person being spoken to are particularly important, and can entirely determine their meaning. Let’s take the word ‘fuck’ that we hear and use all the time, to refer to sex, to denote disdain and to intensify a point: how the fuck have you been? (popular guys’ greeting), fuck my life (FML—popular website)/you/off, oh/what the fuck (WTF—Mumbai restaurant chain), absofuckinglutely, I’m fucked… the variations are endless, and are humorously described by Osho to a group of laughing followers in a must-watch video. Interestingly, as fast as language is changing, there have not been many new abuses added to the English language—the ever-popular ‘fuck’ has been around since the 1400s!
Foul language is empowering not only because us women are appropriating a male privilege (and refusing the whore/angel categorisation to boot). Lee Anne, who curses “only at 'eve-teasers'” does both: conveys her point to them and gets her anger at them out of her system. Phoolan Devi also swore like a bitch. In an interview to the New York Times, Timothy Jay, author of Cursing in America and Why We Curse says cursing “is a form of anger management that is often underappreciated.” Winners of 2010’s Ig Nobel Peace Prize found the swearing relieves the effects of physical pain—great to remember when you next wear stilettoes.
Since expletives have so far been the privilege of men (and women of disrepute), predictably, many expletives are rooted in patriarchy and misogyny. ‘Cunt’, ‘motherfucker’, ‘slut’ and ‘bitch’ are commonplace, and far more biting than if you try flipping the gender—calling someone a ‘penis’ or ‘dog’ isn’t really the same thing. Though I’m happy to appropriate a foul mouth from the male domain, these gendered abuses are problematic to me (and people like Priyanka, who reacted to Ankush’s comment), and probably why I invented the word ‘doggess’ at 13. In both, the UK study 'Delete Expletives?' of 2000 and the 2009 New Zealand study 'What Not to Swear', ‘cunt’ (a common number one) and ‘motherfucker’ were considered the most severe cuss words.
When my friend Mat visited me from Australia a few years ago, I set about translating the Hindi abuses he’d heard (and teaching him new ones, of course). He too observed that while ‘cunt’ and ‘motherfucker’ were the harshest words in English—“The only ones that mean anything anymore”—in Hindi, ‘chootiya’ is almost as bland as ‘donkey’ or ‘idiot’. While ‘faggot’ and other sexually discriminatory words are becoming increasingly unacceptable in a politically correct world, ‘gaandu’ in Hindi is par for the course. ‘Maderchod’ and ‘behenchod’ are more severe, like their English translations. Go figure: like pornography styles, what counts as taboo language in a culture is often a reflection of its particular fears and obsessions. Guy Deutscher, author of The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention, says that where the virtue and honour of women is of utmost cultural importance, “many swear words are variations on the ‘son of a whore’ theme or refer graphically to the genitalia of the person’s mother or sisters.”
Fuck this shit! Well-behaved women seldom make history. It’s time we loosened up, shrugged off conceptions of how we should or shouldn't speak, and embraced our colourful sides.
An edited version of this article appeared in DNA in December 2013.