Tuesday night saw me rush into the city centre, abandoning the comfort of my Northside home to venture within the hallowed walls of Trinity. The Very Big Sister is now a student there; I was joining her for her idea – and mine – of a good night: a Steven Pinker lecture.
The lecture was a presentation of his new book, The Stuff of Thought. It deals with the way in which theories of time, space, matter and causality inform the way we speak. The last part of the speech dealt with swearing. It started with a picture of Bono, whose acceptance speech ‘this is fucking brilliant’’ inspired an amendment to House Resolution 3687, The Clean Airwaves Act:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the
(1) by inserting `(a)' before `Whoever'; and
(2) by adding at the end the following:
`(b) As used in this section, the term `profane', used with respect to language, includes the words `shit', `piss', `fuck', `cunt', `asshole', and the phrases `cock sucker', `mother fucker', and `ass hole', compound use (including hyphenated compounds) of such words and phrases with each other or with other words or phrases, and other grammatical forms of such words and phrases (including verb, adjective, gerund, participle, and infinitive forms).'.
Pinker pointed out that, unfortunately for the House, Bono’s “fucking” is in fact an adverb, and as such, not covered by the amendment. Maybe they should employ linguists when they draft the amendment to the amendment.
He identified five categories for swearing:
- dysphemistic swearing (using a taboo word instead of a socially acceptable one)
- abusive swearing
- idiomatic swearing
- emphatic swearing
- cathartic swearing
An interesting point about cathartic swearing – the words we use when we burn our hand on the iron as we desperately try to look presentable even though we are already 10 minutes late – is that it is conventional. You have to learn which word to use in which circumstance, and different words are use in different contexts in different languages. Words I (and even my mother) use regularly as we bump our way through the day would be unthinkable in English. Those I use in English I would never consider in French.
So the book is now beside me, and will be read in the long flight to