What makes profanity, well, profane? Given the historical juxtaposition of profane and sacred, it’s possible to assume that a divine censor had an intelligent design in mind when establishing linguistic boundaries around certain words and phrases within modern languages. There is evidence, insofar as passages from a really old collection of human writings can be considered evidence, to suggest that taking the name of the divine in vain could provoke the wrath of said divine. One might even go so far as to suggest that said divine would smite the shit out of the offender, or perhaps even further to suggest that anyone who provokes the wrath of the divine is truly fucked. But nowhere is it written in the holy books that these words, which didn’t even exist in the original languages of any holy books (save those of Mormonism and Scientology), should or would be considered offensive by the divine. So are they really profane in the context of being anti-sacred?
If not profane by that standard, what elevates — or rather demotes — the infamous four-letter wonders to a status very different from that of their otherwise equivalent linguistic counterparts? Language, if reduced to its essence, is a set of symbols or sounds used to communicate meaning. Is there a necessary distinction between profane and offensive? In other words, even if a word isn’t technically profane, is classifying it as offensive achieving the same quarantine effect? Fuck, for example, has its roots in human poetry dating back to the 1400s, used even then to describe the procreative act. The term seems to have gathered greater and more versatile semantic utility through the years, and can now manifest in almost every part of speech (i.e. “Fuck. We are fucked. Those fuckers are fucking with the wrong fucking people”). While more difficult to assemble, a similar sentence might incorporate derivations of a term more widely accepted as decidedly less offensive (i.e. “Bump. We are bumped. Those bumpers are bumping with the wrong bumping people”). Less offensive, certainly, but does the second sentence achieve anything close to the feel of the first? Does it replace that percussive and cathartic release offered so palpably by “Fuck!” To deny ourselves that release because some consider the term offensive is short-sighted. But then, perhaps the release is present because of the forbidden nature of the fruit itself.
So we censor some words because we find them offensive, but we don’t seem to make any effort to quantify the reasoning behind that offense. Mostly we default to the “polite company” or “profanity is a sin” positions so popular with the intellectually content. Sure, language evolves with the rest of the human condition, and the offensive words of yesterday often slide in through the back door of acceptability over time. We see this trend in the evolution of cable television. We also see a clear picture of the net effect: Baptists don’t recognize each other in the liquor store and they only watch network television. Yeah, right.