Will link to bittercon
There was an otherwise totally forgettable SF show aimed at young teens during the nineties. I can't even remember the star's name, except that she had long blond hair. My daughter was exactly the right age for that show, but she bailed after one episode, she said at the time because she couldn't stand how stupid it was that the girl exclaimed, whether surprised or angry, "Fahita Zapita!" "Nobody would ever say 'Fahita Zapita!'" my kid insisted.
Segue up to a couple of weeks ago, when scientists show proof that cussing when hurt actually relieves pain
. Anyone who has heard about the fact that recovered black boxes from crashed planes most frequently end with blue language--has been a coach at a birth, and heard an otherwise mild-mannered woman blistering the wallpaper--practiced at a dojo and heard someone who has just taken a hefty hit yell a word in the same tone that they usually yell their Chiai--wouldn't be surprised, I don't think. At least, my reaction was kind of, "So you've finally caught up with the obvious, eh, just like 'Dogs have emotions.' Rah science!"
When I was first thinking about this subject, I realized that many of the terms used are not exactly interchangeable. Swearing is not cursing, which is not cussing. Swearing used to mean swearing oaths
--an important part of many cultures. If you look at Beowulf
you discover that oaths are not cussing at all--the insults are flyting, which is a different matter, often ritualistic. Oaths are meant to be kept--a person's oath was their honor. Often these included oaths before a deity. God is mentioned many times in Beowulf
but you won't find a single one of those tough warriors using 'God' in their cussing.
In recent decades 'oath' has been used in fiction as a politeness for cuss words ("The villain uttered a coarse oath as he tied the maiden to the railroad tracks") unless it's specified ("She raised her right hand and swore her oath of office."). "Vow" tends to be used for those types of oaths now--"Marriage vows." "Vow of vengeance." "Vow of silence."
I think oaths are pretty much gone, as is is the notion that one is as good as one's word. Many say that is because we have become such a secular society. My tentative theory is that that is not quite right. One only has to look at the mind-boggling duplicity and ethical and moral swamp of the later Roman republic to see that religious cultural trappings in no way held back those determined to do what they were going to do. Caesar and Pompei and Cato and Augustus used religion to serve them, like they used gold and power and clothes and rhetoric. My feeling is that moral and ethical breakdown is related to enormous cities full of plenty. Those in the cities do not have to worry about survival in quite the sense of rougher days, so they don't have to worry about tight bonds of kinship and community that not only can be the difference between survival and non, but make life worth surviving for. Now, if we don't like the people we're around, it's easy enough to move, and find a fresh bunch of people.
Ideally religious conviction includes moral and ethical conviction. We've seen enough hate spewed in the name of religion to know that religious language is not an automatic ticket to goodness--but neither is an officially non-religious state. Outlawing religion did not, from any evidence I saw, make people behave one iota better toward their fellow human in the Soviet Union. From what I see, both religious and non-religious people can be raised with moral and ethical awareness, or with moral and ethical torquing to justify "us against them."
Anyway, these days we are bombarded with so many lies that we have automatic filters on our machines (TiVo to edit out commercials, spam traps to try to stay up with spam, training oneself to look past billboards and ads) as well as in our heads. Though again, there were ads in the days of the Roman empire, such as the ladies and gents of the evening who had the soles of their sandals treated in such a way as to leave foot prints to lure those who wanted to pay for play. Whenever we go out to buy something--a house, a car, a couch--we try to arm ourselves with facts the better to filter out the lies we'll be told by the seller. Until relatively recently (and some fume that it's still not what it should be) the medical profession was largely made up of charlatans preying on the credulous. For a real stomach-turning experience, take a look at the history of medicine in Western Europe, right up until about a century ago. Eugh!
'Cursing' is even older, the idea of making a formal curse so that harm would come to another. There was certainly magical thinking here, but cursing could also be a social signal to go after the cursed one. And his or her family, friends, and possessions.
'Cussing' I think of as using impolite language. The crazy thing about human cussing--and it probably reflects the extraordinary inconsistency of human behavior and thought--is that cussing isn't constant except in a very narrow range, usually having to do with excreta. Styles and modes seem to vary not only from culture to culture but from region to region and in time. Cussing that relates to sex can vary wildly, but some of the most opaque cussing is that relating to class. Then there are periods of history where cussing can get you into serious trouble . . . which means it dives underground. It doesn't go away any more than hierarchical behavior goes away.
Sometimes it loses its teeth. Like "Drat!", which is considered fairly innocuous, once meant "God rot your bones!" which wasn't innocuous at all during the middle ages. "Plaguey" is merely a quaint adjective, usually put into the mouths of cliche pirates, along with "Arrr!"--no one anymore says, "Plague take you!" which was an extremely serious imprecation indeed after the mid 1300s, when half the population of Europe died within about a year. "Zounds!" was "God's wounds!"--one of those expressions one swears by.
I don't think there's much swearing 'by' any more. A hundred years ago it was okay to swear by something that didn't cross serious religious boundaries--so in early nineteenth century novels, men say, "By Jupiter!" but "By G--!" is written for the real blasphemer. Religious imprecations still resound all around us, secular though the society is. But when someone asks God to damn us, we no longer make the sign of the cross to ward it, much less drop flat in order to avoid a direct hit from the curse. It makes us angry just the same, even if we don't fear we will be instantly blasted to the eternal rotisserie on this person's word.
As always, cursing inspires its own euphemisms, like "effing" or "f***"--we know what it means, but we're not saying the word. A sort of magical thinking without much magic.
Much more fun to contemplate are the origins of phrases like the holies--"Holy Toledo! Holy Smoke! [not-so-innocent term redacted]!" and in fandom, "Holy crom!" Or "Fiddledeedee!" which women could use. The tone of voice had to give it the necessary oomph, which Vivien Leigh understood quite well when she tossed her hair and stamped her foot in Gone With the Wind
Back in the seventies, when many friends were trying hard to divest themselves of the phony trappings of the past and create a totally gender-equal, classless society, I remember a few earnest conversations about the matter of cussing. Some women felt that so much male cussing had to do with violence against women, and of course there were the many, many socially acceptable bigoted terms meant to keep racial or social groups outside the main group. I remember one woman declared that from now on, cussing had to be expletives of heinous acts, and it didn't work to have long phrases, so she proposed exclaiming "Rape!" As I recall, when I saw this in practice, hearers either laughed or seemed uncomfortable, but it did not catch on. Nor did some earnest phrases that I saw put forth in forgettable allegorical stories as well as in real life--"You anti-egalitarianist!" or "Classist!" (which I thought would have been better for the use of the good old-fashioned "Snob!")
Sometimes terms do catch on, such as Yankees, and gay (which apparently goes clear back to Chaucer, but narrowed in meaning all during the 20th c).
Anyway, the writer who wants to posit cultures does have to consider this aspect of behavior, even if only to dismiss it. There are ways of dealing, of course--just like writing about battle, or eating, or sex, or any other activity, there are ways and degrees and styles. "They ate lunch" can be stated as "They chowed down on tacos" or "They ordered crispy tortillas slathered with refried beans, rice, shredded cheese, fresh tomatoes, and salsa made with cilantro, and savored each bite, then washed down the whole with a foaming glass of Dos Equis." Speaking as a reader, I like it when the details of a culture feel real. If the people think that the deadliest insult of all is "Horse-feathered chicken-beak," the worldbuilding details have got to convince me that there is meaning in those words, or else I'm going to snicker.