Letter to The New York Times

Below is my letter to the editor at The New York Times. It won't get published, because their limit is 150 words; this one is 815. The excerpts from the article are in blue.

Re: "Almost Before We Spoke, We Swore" (Science section, 9-20-2005).

To the Editor:

Some twenty years ago, your erstwhile top Science writer Richard Severo wanted to publish a long essay on swearing, but the Times's former, hyper-repressed Abe Rosenthal prevented that article from being printed. Now, instead, there's this embarrassing article on the same topic, Natalie Angier's "Almost Before We Spoke, We Swore" (Science, 9-20-2005). She appears to be naive, gullible and ignorant, and most of her "expert" contributors are wannabe maledictologists.

Let's expose some nonsense:

"Every language, dialect or patois ever studied, living or dead, spoken by millions or by a small tribe, turns out to have its share of forbidden speech, some variant on comedian George Carlin's famous list of the seven dirty words that are not supposed to be uttered on radio or television," Ms. Angier and some "expert" researcher claim. Wrong. There are many cultures where words denoting naughty body parts, sex and excretion are neither forbidden nor taboo. Relatively few cultures worldwide are as repressed as ours.

"The Jacobean dramatist Ben Jonson peppered his plays with fackings and "peremptorie Asses," John McWhorter, a so-called scholar of linguistics, claimed. However, these asses are donkeys (an animal metaphor meaning 'stupid persons,' etc.), not buttocks, thus not offensive.

Further, "The title "Much Ado About Nothing," Dr. McWhorter said, is a word play on "Much Ado About an O Thing," the O thing being a reference to female genitalia." What nonsense! What rubbish! And the "t" and "i" in "thing" are phallic symbols, no doubt.

"In fact, said Guy Deutscher, a linguist at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands ..., the earliest writings, which date from 5,000 years ago, include their share of off-color descriptions of the human form and its ever-colorful functions." There's no evidence that such descriptions were in any way offensive to or considered "off-color" by the locals: different times, different cultures, different value systems.

"Studies show that if you're with a group of close friends, the more relaxed you are, the more you swear," Dr. Kate Burridge, an Australian professor of linguistics, said. "It's a way of saying: 'I'm so comfortable here I can let off steam. I can say whatever I like.'" More nonsense. What groups were studied? Soldiers? Truck drivers? College students? Pious church-going old ladies? Rabbinical scholars? The results of observing the behavior of some groups are not applicable to most others and therefore useless generalizations.

"Evidence also suggests that cursing can be an effective means of venting aggression and thereby forestalling physical violence," another scholar said.That's what I have been preaching, writing and lecturing about for some 30 years, thank you.

"Researchers ... have found that what counts as taboo language in a given culture is often a mirror into that culture's fears and fixations." (Dr. Deutscher). That's a cute paraphrase of what I have been proclaiming since the 1960s: taboo language shows the precise value system of a culture.

"In some cultures, swear words are drawn mainly from sex and bodily functions, whereas in others, they're drawn mainly from the domain of religion," Dr. Deutscher said. "In societies where the purity and honor of women is of paramount importance," he said, "it's not surprising that many swear words are variations on the 'son of a whore' theme or refer graphically to the genitalia of the person's mother or sisters."

Ah, good Dr. Deutscher must have been reading some volumes of Maledicta at the Leiden university library and some articles about my research in major Dutch publications. His words parrot mine, but he still got it wrong. After years of having investigated swearing and other types of verbal aggression in some 220 languages and dialects, I established and publicized the three major groups of taboos that exist worldwide: Sex and excretions, Blasphemy, and Family. That's family, not just mothers and sisters, including verbal attacks on the opponent's parents (Ghana), fathers (Iran), and all dead relatives (Spanish and Serbian Gypsies).

"Nowadays, the phrase, "Oh, golly!" may be considered almost comically wholesome, but it was not always so. "Golly" is a compaction of "God's body" and, thus, was once a profanity." If Dr. Deutscher really said that, he is the one who is comical. Deriving "golly" from "God's body" is utter nonsense.

Ms. Angier and most swearword "experts" quoted above are ignorant of Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression, which since 1977 has published 13 volumes with 3,700 pages of essays and glossaries on linguistic, psychological, sociological, folkloric, and humorous aspects of swearing and related topics in many languages and cultures.

Their ignorance is reason enough to utter my favorite Ancient Egyptian donkey-curse.

Reinhold Aman
Santa Rosa, Calif.
21 September 2005

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