combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2006

Taking Aim at Commo
a scholium on style and usage

Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.
Jonathan Swift ["A Letter to a Young Gentleman, lately entered into Holy Orders" (1721)]

The Basics of Profanity

Profanity or bad language has evolved over many years, representing both the highest and lowest forms of human expression. Originally, to take an oath or swear was a matter of honor as in a court of law, such as when one swears to tell the truth, or when a soldier takes an oath to defend his country unto death. To blaspheme, profane or curse involves desecrating the sacred, whereas to spew vulgarisms is something any sixth grade boy who enjoys bathroom jokes can understand. Each can be corrupted and used in an offensive way.

Swear words can cause the greatest offense when used casually, inappropriately or in the wrong company. Yet a well-timed oath can also make people laugh. Among friends, almost any word might be considered acceptable, while even the mildest of curses can be distressing when coming from the mouth of a child. Something as simple as the tone or type of voice a person uses can affect how the word is received. Should a comedian swear it might be considered witty, while the exact same phrase coming from a mechanic will be interpreted as crude.

In Revolutionary times, it was not unusual for little Johnny to have his mouth washed out with soap when his mama heard him utter even the mildest cuss words. Such objection to profanity was ingrained in the culture, echoed by George Washington himself in his General Orders to the Continental Army which read "... the foolish and wicked practices of profane cursing and swearing (a vice heretofore little known in an American Army) is growing into fashion." He followed with a warning that "we can have little hopes of the blessings of heaven on our arms if we insult it by our impiety."

There were many Johnnies in Twain's time as well as older Johnnies who spilled over into the military. A Massachusetts soldier in 1862 wrote a letter saying, " nine words out of every ten that a soldier utters are either profane or vulgar, yet I have always tried to keep my letters as free as possible from them." Indeed, the Civil War soldier was actually fined "one dollar per swear" as an Army regulation.

We have long ago left such linguistic innocence, going beyond George Carlin's seven dirty words never to be spoken on the media, seeing most of them readily available, at least on cable television. Given that speech vulgarity is measurably increasing on the air, the United States Senate has indicated its interest by presenting a bill to raise obscenity fines and even revoke the network licenses of repeat offenders.

Yet studies show that profanity has been around since words came croaking out of the caves, with every language, dialect and jargon having its own variation. Freud said, "The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization." References to the deity are found in expletives such as Gosh, Gee, and Gadzooks (God's hooks) while curses involving Satan disguised behind the Deuce you say, or more directly, the Devil take ye .... Shakespeare regularly used scatological humor to entertain his audience and no one can read his love scenes without recognizing their double meanings.

Beyond simple humor, strong language can express raw emotions and elicit an equally intense response. Hearing certain words has been shown to cause changes in pulse, breathing and skin patterns with the hair on the arms literally standing on end. Yet profanity is not necessarily random, but instead includes a careful assessment of the recipient. Offensive words are always chosen for their greatest impact according to time and place. One can actually read the values, fears and preoccupations within a culture through studying the words that are marked as taboo. Societies that cherish religion as primary might look upon references that take the Lord's name in vain with special concern. A culture that places a high value on women's honor and purity would find swear words such as strumpet, bitch, or son of a whore to be extremely offensive. Students taking classes in sign language have been known to visibly squirm when asked to sign the f___ word, even though it had not been spoken aloud. Hardened soldiers might be heard to utter euphemisms such as cheese and crackers, trying not to take the Lord's name in vain. Victorian societies, hugely concerned over bodily functions, could be relied upon to see digestion or elimination as a primary target. The British sailor used the word arse liberally, as in arse hole or lazy arse, depending on his audience. The word for human excrement as an obscenity is pretty universal. Even the King James Bible, a ribald Elizabethan translation, describes offensive outsiders who "eat their own dung and drink their own piss."

When asked why they swear, most people come up with the same answer. It is a way of letting off steam, reducing tension and managing anger. In addition, words can serve as a warning and forestall more dangerous behavior, as with animals that parry and spit, then stalk away. Chimpanzees will grunt and gesture aggressively. But animals that are ready to kill don't waste time with gestures, any more than a person will bother with a stylized preliminary. Instead he will simply pick up a gun and start shooting, dismissing the verbal shot in the air as useless.

Besides clearing the air of tension, swearing can make a person of substance seem more like a regular guy. Harry Truman was well known for his barnyard metaphors. A joke circulating during his presidency describes someone asking Bess to persuade her husband to stop making repeated use of the word manure to which she demurred, saying that it had taken years to soften his vocabulary from the use of an even more specific term. President Lyndon Johnson was also known to pepper his everyday conversation with profanity, as was Richard Nixon, a fact revealed in audiotapes made during their presidencies.

Authors have found the use of profanity to be a handy device for rounding out their characters. The novel Battle Cry by Leon Uris describes the adventures of a tough battalion of Marines where every few sentences are laced with profanity, which serves to underscore the Marines' toughness. J.D. Salinger uses the same device in the book Catcher in the Rye, this time describing the young protagonist in a psychological tailspin. In each instance, the characters spout swear words in such abundance that, by the end of the book, the reader has become numb and barely notices, having had their own niceties absorbed into the world of the characters. John Steinbeck in his classic Grapes of Wrath is more selective, choosing to have the villains swearing freely while the Joad family speaks humbly and with great restraint. In each instance, language sends character clues, with those who swear being tough or assertive or at times, villainous, contrasting sharply with the victims' soft replies.

In the military, a certain amount of profanity is seen in the same light. The Civil War Admiral David Farragut was applauded for his remark, "Damn the torpedoes – full speed ahead." These sentiments were subsequently echoed by Anthony McAuliffe during World War II. When faced with German demands for surrender, he replied "Nuts." Colonel Harper, given the responsibility of relaying McAuliffe's rejoinder to the German Major reported saying "If you don't know what 'Nuts' means, in plain English it is the same as 'Go to Hell'."

It so happened that General George Patton was not too far away, bringing the needed supplies and assistance in time. Patton himself had a distinctive ability in the use of profanity. During any normal conversation he would spout four letter words into whatever he was saying, speaking so easily that the listener hardly noticed. But he could also hurl expletives with persuasion, the words seeming almost poetic. He remarked, "When I want my men to remember something important, to really make it stick, I give it to them double dirty. It may not sound nice to some bunch of little old ladies at an afternoon tea party, but it helps my soldiers to remember. You can't run an army without profanity; and it has to be eloquent profanity. An army without profanity couldn't fight its way out of a piss-soaked paper bag. As for the comments I make," he continued, "sometimes I just, by God, get carried away with my own eloquence."

Perhaps then it was a matter of jogging memory that Drill Instructors would use profanity to increase the stress-levels of recruits as well as help them to learn what was expected of them. More important, military jargon and profanity could make the incoming GI part of an in-group, a necessary conviction on the battlefield. Those who stayed on the fringes were called yardbirds, goldbricks, or turds, appellations that brought them into line almost as fast as a midnight GI shower. Being homesick could be alleviated with a sneer, especially when it involved betrayal via the Dear John letter since the new man involved was no doubt a draft-dodger. A hurt or indignation could be relieved with words, underscoring the group cohesion.

Still, it comes as some surprise that since the armed services went gender inclusive, there has been a strict prohibition against profanity. But shouldn't women be included in the buddy system that might encompass profanity? Or should they be given the gentle courtesy taught at their mother's knee? Is swearing only a guy thing or should women be fully included in the ways a specialized society would? There are some who feel that something has been lost in translation. In a current website, much is made by those enrolled in ROTC, who might be supervising training cadre, saying that compliance could easily backfire. Objecting to profanity might make some increase their use of it just to be bothersome. It goes on to say that "men generally use more profanity in conversation than women do. As disgusting as it might sound, it is seldom meant as an insult."

Which takes us back to the earlier thought: Should profanity be regulated by the government? Focusing on the military, one might say that given the intensity of training as well as the subsequent circumstance of waging war, anything that diminishes stress would be a good thing. In addition, it has been shown that swearing on the job is one of the many communal experiences that furthers group identity and morale. And when it comes down to it, even a bad war movie would never have a wounded soldier cry out something like "gee whiz" or "golly."

Still, the military is changing. Along with providing more toilet paper on the base and less Drill Instructor harassment, our country's military is becoming a showcase of America around the world. Hence, along with being respectful of societal differences, it might behoove us to educate in the direction of language as well.

"The Colonel is exasperated with his swearing and blasphemy in front of the men and says he can go out there and swear at the trees until his manners return."

contributed by Beth Staas

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones