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,
"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.
Santa Rosa, Calif.
21 September 2005
Source for complete article: