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JoeMo

What Makes a Word "Dirty"?

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JoeMo

My siblings and I were discussing what makes a word "dirty" or "nasty" or "obscene".  Obviously using God's Name in an irreverent way is "obscene". But what makes the "s" word "dirty", when its synonyms like poop and dung are okay?  What makes the nickname for Richard a "dirty" name for a certain male appendage when other words for it are acceptable?  If we are going by sound, I think the clinical names for certain organs sound "nastier" than the slang terms.  Who decides what makes a word "dirty" or "obscene"?

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JoeMo
2 hours ago, phkrause said:

Could it be the way its used??

I don't know.  If I said you were full of bull, would that be any different than if I said you were full of the vernacular for bovine excrement?  Or if I said fell on my butt, is that really any different than saying I fell on my a$$?

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JoeMo

Wikipedia says that in English, swear words and curse words tend to have Germanic, rather than Latin etymology "S*** has a Germanic root, as, likely, does the "f" bomb. The more technical alternatives are often Latin in origin, such as "defecate" or "excrete" and "fornicate" or "copulate" respectively. Because of this, profanity is sometimes referred to colloquially as "Anglo-Saxon". This is not always the case. 

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pierrepaul

Human language is just a collection of sounds, to which by custom and tradition we ascribe meaning. There is nothing inherently sacred or holy about the combination of sounds we use to describe God, nor is there anything inherently dirty or obscene about other combinations of sounds.

With different societies having developed different languages, what is an ordinary word in one language is vulgar in another. For example the French word for "seal" (the marine animal) is very similar in sound to a vulgar English word, to the great amusement of language students in Canada and elsewhere.

As language changes, develops and evolves, words and expressions once thought to be vulgar join the ranks of acceptable speech, while those once uttered in polite company take on pejorative or vulgar meanings.

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JoeMo
2 hours ago, pierrepaul said:

As language changes, develops and evolves, words and expressions once thought to be vulgar join the ranks of acceptable speech, while those once uttered in polite company take on pejorative or vulgar meanings.

An example is the word "gay".  Once it just meant "happy"
 or "joyful".  With it's current meaning, how many of us would join the Gay Men's Choir?  How many of us would "don our gay apparel" at Christmas?

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Morwenna

It's the value, we as speakers and hearers, we assign to a word that makes it "dirty" or "clean" or acceptable for common use. Vulgar words, once assigned, are stored in a separate part of the brain (think of people who have Tourette Syndrome, or even some people with advanced stages of Alzheimer's Disease: gutteral noises and swearing are often connected).

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JoeMo
22 hours ago, Morwenna said:

Vulgar words, once assigned, are stored in a separate part of the brain

That makes sense.  I've read studies that people who swear vigorously while being subjected to severe pain (voluntarily and only for as long as they can tolerate it) have a higher tolerance to pain that those who remain silent or only say stuff like "my that hurts; golly!" 

Maybe swearing releases endorphins! (Just kidding, I hope).

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Bravus

Part of it is just the sound of the word itself: the most vulgar words tend to be monosyllables ending in hard consonant sounds.

Part of it is usage and a whole range of associations and social attributions that form around a word. We learn a word from how it is used by the people around us and who uses it.

Words do change their meaning over time, at least at the level of connotation (all our associations around a word) if not denotation (its technical dictionary definition). 

The point has been made by a number of people over the years, including Stephen Fry, that the words for love-making are considered dirty while the words for war and murder and torture are considered less so. Which is bizarre, but seems to be the case. His examples are things like "My feet are killing me" or "This traffic is torture".

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B/W Photodude

Some words more than others seems to carry a weight to them which allows them to be stored in other parts of the brain relative to everyday speech.

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2767834/amp/Prim-proper-grandmother-t-stop-SWEARING-stroke-altered-personality.html

So in the end, swearing does appear to have a special place in the brain, which helps explain why kids pick it up so easily, why people with TS sometimes can’t control it, and why people with aphasia are often better at it than they are at producing other language. 

https://theaphasiacenter.com/2014/09/cursing-aphasia/

No one really knows why cursing is, of all speech, more preserved in aphasia. Even for persons who didn’t curse a lot before the stroke, caregivers may be shocked to find their loved one cursing when frustrated. An educated guess would be that cursing is somewhat ‘automatic’ speech. Automatic speech is very common in aphasia, so that sometimes it seems as though the person with aphasia can better than they really can.

https://helix.northwestern.edu/blog/2013/02/special-place-brain-swearing

The nature of her job as a bank customer service adviser demanded she was extremely polite and well-mannered.  

But now the 65-year-old can't help but swear like a trooper after suffering a stroke that changed her personality.

Mrs Preston, of Whickam in Gateshead shocked her husband Michael, 66, by letting rip a stream of four-letter worlds in front of her doctors, in the presence of friends.

And she has even called her young grandchildren 'little b*****s'.

The change was brought about by a stroke she suffered in January.

All that said, there are words that can carry heavy emotional and social baggage in one language, but which in another language is just another word. Even the names of some people can be a swear word in another language. 
 

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B/W Photodude
On 4/24/2019 at 1:10 PM, JoeMo said:

An example is the word "gay".  Once it just meant "happy" or "joyful".  With it's current meaning, how many of us would join the Gay Men's Choir?  How many of us would "don our gay apparel" at Christmas?

Now that is funny right there. And here we have to follow is an example of how EGW was a prophet before her time!

In the twilight two strangers drew near to the city gate. They were apparently travelers coming in to tarry for the night. None could discern in those humble wayfarers the mighty heralds of divine judgment, and little dreamed the gay, careless multitude that in their treatment of these heavenly messengers that very night they would reach the climax of the guilt which doomed their proud city. But there was one man who manifested kindly attention toward the strangers and invited them to his home. Lot did not know their true character, but politeness and hospitality were habitual with him; they were a part of his religion—lessons that he had learned from the example of Abraham. Had he not cultivated a spirit of courtesy, he might have been left to perish with the rest of Sodom. Many a household, in closing its doors against a stranger, has shut out God's messenger, who would have brought blessing and hope and peace. Patriarchs & Prophets, p. 158

While gay was often associated with sexuality way back when, it did not get firmly attached to homosexuals until much later:

“The practice of considering queer desire and illness has been denounced by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association since 1973 and 1975 respectively,” Bainbridge explains. “However, the shift to using gay in the common language took a bit longer. The New York Times didn’t adopt the use of gay until 1987, although it still doesn’t use it in all contexts. But now GLAAD lists homosexual as an offensive term in their media reference guide supplementing gay as the appropriate stand-in.”                                     I would have posted the link to this quote, but the other stuff on the page was not nice!

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phkrause

I have to agree with that EGW quote! My family having moved from Germany shortly after my father got out of concentration camp. We had relatives that lived on the lower eastside. I was about 3 and my brother about 8 months. Of course at the time we knew a few choice words in Jewish/yiddish, but by the time we moved up to the Bronx and started going to Public School that changed. Of course my father who had started working at the Domino Sugar Company learned the english words that went along with the Yiddish ones, so my brother and I had to be careful what we said because we get the evil eye from him, which usually meant a big whopping. So that kind of curb our language. Than my Mom started doing VOP Bible Studies and the Bible worker brought us to the German Brooklyn Church. We did really good about our language! Than my Mom wanted to find a Jewish/Christian Church so that she could get my Dad to start to go. And to our surprise they had a Hebrew Temple in the Bronx, it could've been called the Jewish Temple, but I don't think it matters either way. It had all Jewish/Adventist pastors and most of the members were Jewish also. So even though I went to PS for all my years except my last I did pretty well with my language! There was the occasional blurt here and there, I still do that now!! Than after I graduated from GNYA I went to work at the sleekly company, but soon after I got hired by FFT and of course I had to watch my language for sure, so if I didn't like one of the bosses I couldn't just pop off a few choice 4 letter words. I got pretty good at not cursing or using dirty words. Than after a year there I got drafted and of course I attempted to stay true, but that didn't last long, I did feel good though because the people in charge wanted me back at FFT, so I thanked God once more for helping with that problem!! I should stop now!!

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R. G. White

This is a very interesting discussion. While there are varying ideas, there does seem to be a consensus around the fact that what makes a word "dirty" is how the word is commonly perceived within a given culture or language group. However, I don't know if anyone has taken this to the next level, and addressed the question:  Of what does this common perception consist?

My take on the matter is that a word is "dirty" because it is commonly perceived as being unnecessarily graphic about bodily functions that are either distasteful or sacred -- that latter being demeaning of human sexuality -- or needlessly flippant or profane in regard to God or true religion.

I think that a word such as "poop" is generally acceptable because it is not always convenient to use a more verbose term for human excrement, and because it is considered virtuously down-to-earth to be vulgar in the most literal sense of the word. At the same time, there is a recognition that one is deliberately avoiding even worse terminology.

I note that those who learn English as a second language often inadvertently violate our norms in the use of "dirty" words. Perhaps ESL teachers need to get over a bit of their "tolerance" and warn their students concerning what words might generally be considered offensive.

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JoeMo
1 hour ago, R. G. White said:

I note that those who learn English as a second language often inadvertently violate our norms in the use of "dirty" words. Perhaps ESL teachers need to get over a bit of their "tolerance" and warn their students concerning what words might generally be considered offensive.

That's true.  A funny thing happened at church one week.  We had a new assistant pastor straight from the Ukraine whose English was less than fluent.  He sang "Amazing Grace" quite beautifully while playing the cello - except for one boo-boo.  He started the song with "Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a [censored] like me".  He was puzzled why so many people snickered.  When we explained it to him as gently as we could, he was quite embarrassed.

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