God, Sex, and Race: how swearing has changed

From everything that I have read on the life and times around 1600 – which is not very much, excluding the 1632verse – using God’s name in vain was a big deal. I mean, a really big deal. People didn’t do it. When I read that, it seems so strange that I adjust the words to mean that it was probably like saying fuck today.

But, now that I have really thought about it, I am convinced that people didn’t do it. It was taboo.

By the middle of the 19th, century, people did take the Lord’s name in vain, people might say damn you, but sex was taboo. Even indirect words like bastard or son of a bitch were considered heavy duty. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage was considered a great book for it’s accurate depiction of Civil War combat and it does not have any sexual swearing in it – I have not read it in more than 50 years so it is possible I might have forgot them, but I don’t think so. I don’t think fuck – or, to push the limit, cunt –  is to be found in Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald. Not because they were effete – they were anything but – but because those words really were taboo.

Now, we use sex words. Michele and I are watching HBO’s Pacific and they use fuck all the time. But we don’t use disparaging words about race. As close as a white person gets to using the N word is to say the N word. It has become taboo.

The vice-president says This is a big fucking deal!  and nobody really notices. Senator George Allen, during his 2006 re-election campaign, calls somebody a Macaca, and he is political history. No reprieve.

Here is a test:

Imagine you have an eleven year old daughter; she comes home from school and says Jane, that fucker, lied about me to the teacher…. Depending on alot of things: you might tell her that If you say that again you will go to your room for a timeout; admonish her saying Nice people don’t talk that way; just laugh, knowing she wouldn’t say that in front of your mother and she was doing it for shock value for you only.

Now imagine she comes home and says Jane, that nigger, lied about me to the teacher… Among other things, you would probably consider pulling her out of school and putting her in a different school. I know I would and – I have to admit – I am sort of shocked about that.

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