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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

On Swearing

I've been thinking about profane language quite a bit lately. Why does it bother me so? And why do I find it so offensive? Is it because I was brought up with my speech carefully monitored? A great deal of coarse language makes reference to body parts or bodily functions. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. So what is it about some words that make them taboo?

And how does one determine whether a word can be used in regular speech or not? Several years back, when the term "screwed up" peppered my speech, my father would insist that I not use that term because it had a vulgar meaning. When I told him it hadn't that meaning any longer – I felt it meant someone was acting in an odd or "crazy" manner - he insisted I shouldn't use it because 1) I just wasn't aware of its connotations; 2) older people still consider it vulgar and wouldn't appreciate its common usage; and 3) I had been exposed to that word at school so often that it no longer had the intended effect on me. I thought his rationale was very convincing, but lately I've come to realize that many words that were once considered offensive have now entered public discourse. So perhaps the term "screwed up" no longer has the negative connotation my father thought it had – perhaps it can no longer be considered coarse language.

Unanswered questions tend to trouble me, so I emailed an old professor to ask her my question:

Dear Professor "Wordy":
I was wondering whether you'd be able to answer this burning question of mine. At what point do swear words lose their force? A few years ago, my father would gently rebuke us when we used phrases like, "he's screwed up" to mean someone has problems or isn't fully normal, because he believed the word has sexual connotations. Yet I'm sure there are some words we use today that might have been considered profanities in the past, and I know there are some words which have quite innocent meanings but have come to refer to sexual activity. How do we judge whether a word is socially acceptable or not?
My professor responded the next day:

Hi Safiyyah,
I wish I had an easy answer to your questions. You are right that swear words tend to lose their force over time and also that they are more acceptable in some situations (say, with your friends) than in others (with your parents). It is not easy to judge when they have become acceptable. One way might be, if you hear them on a family TV show, they have probably become acceptable. I am still shocked when I see an advertisement announcing that something 'sucks' - that is still profane for me, but obviously not for a lot of other people. I would think that most former swear words even if they are no longer profane still remain acceptable in informal language only. A dictionary like the Canadian Oxford Dictionary can give some guidance; it marks words that the editor considers profane as 'coarse' – for example, 'screw up' is marked as slang (meaning informal language only) but not as 'coarse'. I hope that helps.
Professor "Wordy"
I'm not entirely satisfied with this response, but perhaps there simply isn't a concrete answer to my questions. In any case, I thought I'd pose them to my readers once again:

What is it about some words that make them unacceptable for use in polite company? When does profane language become part of the public discourse? And what happens when seemingly harmless words are hijacked and made profane over time? Can these words be used in their original manner or would it be anachronistic to do so?


  • At 6/28/2005 04:26:00 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said…

    swearing is bad anytime.....


  • At 6/28/2005 04:28:00 p.m., Blogger cncz said…

    salam alaikoum

    i don't think it is a question of words but a question of register...since slang belongs to casual speech, it isn't something you would want to say to your grandma. just my two cents, i'm not derrida or anything


  • At 6/28/2005 05:09:00 p.m., Blogger Lyvvie said…

    I agree that one shouldn't use profanity. The reason a person uses such words is usually to express themselves in an angry or aggressive manner. They are words of force, accent and misguided punctuation.

    To use such words weakens your ability to communicate effectively as it makes a person appear common.

    As per "Screwed up" I always thought it was more regarding the phrase "Head screwed on tight", so if yours is not, you are screwed up. A person who tells me "I'm all screwed up!", I'm not thinking anything sexual in thier comment.

    Anyways, that's my two cents.(Although I will admit to using such words. I live in Scotland; even the Grannies cuss!)

  • At 6/28/2005 05:22:00 p.m., Blogger Hasan the Not-So-Great said…

    it all depends on how much you are exposed to and how much you deem it acceptable. I used to cuss with all the really bad words until I looked back and found them really vulgar. I now am trying to stop some other people from cursing also. its one of those sins that are really easy to ignore and shrug off after a while of doing it. we must all be careful of it.

  • At 6/28/2005 06:14:00 p.m., Blogger Brian said…

    Safiyyah, there are times when I use profanity. Sometimes it is for emphasis and sometimes it just comes out. There are better ways I could express myself but such habits are difficult to break.

    "screwed"? "sucked"? I think those don't have a sexual connotation anymore. They have become part of everyday language even with young children.

    Good post.

  • At 6/28/2005 08:00:00 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Have a read:


    ps I've heard the origins of the word "fuck" comes from the Arabic Fiqh, which literally means to open new ground. It makes sense because the origins of the word are still disputed and are linked as far as the 16th century(beginning of the renaissance). Most want to forget the influence the Islamic world has on present day modern western civilization. More fair observations of Islamic civilization could only further our understanding of Modern Western Civilization.

    Here is another site:


  • At 6/28/2005 08:41:00 p.m., Anonymous Fatima B said…

    I was contemplating on the way language and other symbols have been hijacked. For example the word 'gay' a few years back was something I'm sure we've all read in a book of nursery rhymes. But today, you can scarcely use that word in public without inciting a chorus of giggles. And rainbows are no longer neutral objects for children to paint...

    Even the new 'gay' is beginning to lose its meaning, since anything people do that is strange or out-of-whack is labelled as being 'so gay'.

    As a high school teacher, we are told to nail kids the second such comments leave their mouths. I feel hypocritical doing this, when I do so myself all the time, with having any conscious intention of referring to gay people at all.

    As for the word fiqh, I had always wondered what if there was a connection since my mother cringes when I mention it...thanks anonymous. However, I don't know if that's something muslims should go boasting about..

  • At 6/28/2005 11:47:00 p.m., Anonymous aasim said…

    anthropologists have many theories on why non-standard speech persists, referencing hegemony and class politics and other things.

  • At 6/28/2005 11:51:00 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said…

    You are right the word "fuck" is nothing to be proud of. However, it can be construed as a "western" animosity towards the Islamic World and its achievements. Fiqh being a highly advanced science compared to no other.

    The words "croissant", "mosque" are derived from the seething hatred Christian Europe has had of Muslims throughout history.

    Read up on the words and find out for yourself.


  • At 6/29/2005 12:07:00 a.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    ABM: Would you please go away? I asked you not to post again until you'd emailed me.
    I also previously deleted one of your posts - remember that? - because I didn't like the swearing. How easy it is to forget. Notice that none of the comments contain coarse language.

  • At 6/29/2005 12:10:00 a.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    Fatima: Great to hear from you. You're telling me you use the word 'gay' to mean happy? :-)

    Aasim: So what's your theory, Mr. Anthropology?

  • At 6/29/2005 12:27:00 a.m., Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At 6/29/2005 01:27:00 a.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    You're really despicable...and quite pathetic really. Don't come back here. I'll just delete your ramblings.

  • At 6/29/2005 02:52:00 a.m., Blogger Julaybib said…


    Until recently, I was very careful about using taboo words on my blog. But I changed my mind. I think that, properly used, some profanities add power and even humour to a piece of writing.

    Qaradawi's 'Enjoining Right...', which is the conservative take on things, cautions that one should swear infrequently. So it's within the trad Shariah to use language in this way, I feel.

    In English, there is also a long tradition of 'bawdy' humour that embraces Chaucer, Shakespeare and my personal favourite, Swift, not to mention contemporary musical lyrics, like 'The Electric Chairs'.


    The Muslim Anarchist

  • At 6/29/2005 11:42:00 a.m., Anonymous dodo said…

    Saf you have discovered the secret of getting the most comments for a blog...
    Talk about profanity!! :-)

    Profanity similar to other fads (like clothes, etc) Depend on 2 notions:

    - The 'In' thing/factor
    I still remember the Kris Kross years when people wore clothes backwards.
    Similarly did you know that a couple of hundred years ago, it was considered vulgar & disrespectful for women to wear pants in European & America too!!

    On those grounds abusing was bad too. There have been times that using profanity & slang is considered the 'in' thing to do.
    Your friends use the f word, so what's wrong with using it or if you don't you'll be considered different.

    This way such words (& also clothings, etc) being famous/infamous became so common

    - Time:
    Another thing that you pointed out, is a word like 'screwed up' (Pardons for any aunties & uncles reading this)
    As you said some don't consider it bad, others do.

    I try not to use it. The reason is that it was added to my vocabulary was simply coz I thought it was slang for 'I made a mistake', 'I messed up'. I had no clue about the what people used to relate it too.

    The reality is that such words originally started as profanities, were related to
    certain 'connotations'.
    However due to the 'In' thing/factor and as time passed by.
    People kept using this word for what it is now supposed to mean & not what it used to mean.

    The question that comes to mind is:
    Is that ok to use it now since it means something else?

    Well...what is the F word or something similar replaces
    'messed up/dumb/fool' then will it ok to use that word too?

    I sure hope the $%#@ not :P

  • At 6/30/2005 02:31:00 p.m., Blogger dawud al-gharib said…

    asSalaam 'aleykum;

    I tried to clarify a point about what is considered crude, and how that is different from either humour (where one often says something mildly offensive, only to turn the meaning "on it's head"); or seeking knowledge, where hadith assure us that clarity and learning necessary knowledge is more important than the shame we may experience in asking intimate questions (reference the hadith where Umm ul-muqmin'in Aisha (radhi Allahu anha)
    says: Don't feel shy of asking me about a thing which you can ask your mother, who gave you birth, for I am also your mother. (ie, in Islam)

  • At 6/30/2005 02:32:00 p.m., Blogger dawud al-gharib said…

    my earlier post where I quoted at length didn't get submitted, so the above will have to suffice - wa Allahu alim

  • At 7/01/2005 09:04:00 p.m., Anonymous Fatima B said…

    My goodness, I feel like such a gullible loser.

    It is in fact ABM a.k.a. Anonymous who is the real loser. I took the liberty of looking up the word fiqh in my brand new Arabic dictionary (Al Mawrid, the best one there is), and found that the route f-q-h has absolutely nothing to do with the F-word. It refers to jurisprudence or doctrine and bears no resemblance at all to the meaning given by ABM.

    ABM is clearly a hate-mongering, ignorant, illiterate person who likes to give his/her opinions without having any evidence to back them. And the 'croissant' and 'mosque' stories are urban legends that have been floating around on the net for decades, without proof of any negative etymology.

    As one good friend of mine always used to say, "when your mind is in the gutter", anything anyone says can be thought of with perverse connotations.

    Congratulations ABM. You've shown us all where your mind is. Try and pull it out of there before it's too late.

  • At 7/01/2005 09:04:00 p.m., Blogger Sharfa said…


    Being an American parent to a 15 year old. I can honestly say, we use excessive profanity, myself included. We have become lax in what is acceptable language. We have also brutalized the English language.

    I think your best guide will be your conscience. If you feel uncomfortable saying certain words or phrases, then you shouldn't use them. Overuse of a profanity or once unacceptable words should not make it accebtable language, nor should it be tolerated.

    In some circles it is 'cool' to use profanity as an adjective and every other word. Do you really want to be associated with those circles?

    As a society, we have become desensitized to too much violence, profanity & sex.

    Numbness due to overexposure should not make the once unacceptable acceptable.


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