11 October 2007

Bad language and good lectures

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:


To amend section 1464 of title 18, United States Code, to provide for the punishment of certain profane broadcasts, and for other purposes.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That section 1464 of title 18, United States Code, is amended--

(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 Vancouver.


Anonymous said...

"F**cking" in the phrase "F**cking brilliant" an adverb? I don't think so. It's acting as an adjective by modifying "brilliant," which is either itself an adjective (e.g., that's a brilliant idea), or an interjection (Wow/Brilliant! I won the lottery).

In form, it looks like a gerund (a verb form ending in ing, used as a noun), but it's not being used like a gerund.
http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu is a great resource for this stuff.

Either way, it's covered by the Act in the quoted use.

Anonymous said...

To the first anonymous: even a math teacher like me knows that a modifier of an adjective (or a verb) is called an adverb.

I'm also a recovering lawyer, and an airtight bill would have used "but not limited to" after the word "including". The omission might not get Bono off the hook, but it's litigable.

BTW, was this silliness ever enacted into law?

Anonymous said...

Definitely an adverb. The first poster, Anonymous, should brush up on his/her grammar before posting.

Anonymous said...

They still include "piss" in that list? Are you joking? That's used regularly in the family hour. Heck, it didn't even get bleeped on Kid Nation.