The Dallas Morning News
7 January 2005

What the *^&%$#@!

By Jeffrey Weiss

A chance remark can reveal a heck of a lot more than we intend.

Last month, the editor of the Jewish weekly newspaper The Forward defended the inclusion of Madonna on the paper's annual list of most influential Jews in America. But isn't she Catholic?

"She's a practitioner of the Kabbalah, so she's practicing Judaism, for Christ's sake!" the editor, J.J. Goldberg, told the New York Daily News. "Well, not really for Christ's sake."

Most Americans would be amused by that line. Some would find it offensive. Either way, it's more than just a punch line: The editor of a Jewish newspaper can invoke the Christian deity without initially considering the literal meaning. And a major daily newspaper will print the quote as delivered.

Where has blasphemy gone, for Pete's sake?

For many of us, the cultural taboos that made the colorful use of faith-linked words so dangerously satisfying have mostly vanished. And like Mr. Goldberg, most of us don't think about the original connections when searching for words to shout when we want to add an oral exclamation point.

On the other hand, the words retain enough mojo that darned near any American who whacks his thumb is likely to sprinkle religious references among the words for family members, body parts and bodily functions.

Or as David Letterman said on his show recently: "Holy crap!"

There's evidence that human brains are hard-wired into using taboo words as emotional escape valves -- the more taboo, the more effective. Tourette Syndrome is a brain disorder that includes involuntary shouting of obscenities.

"They will tell you, if I say '[sexual term involving a parent],' it makes me feel better than when I say 'darn,'" said Timothy Jay, author of Why We Curse and a psychology professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

And which words are considered most taboo can offer an emotional X-ray into the core values of a person or a people.

"It tells you what a culture thinks is acceptable and what's not," said Reinhold Aman, editor of the scholarly "Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression" and a onetime professor of medieval literature.

By that measure, the sacred is no longer most sacred in America. Sex, bodily functions and family, it seems, are more sensitive topics than religion, based on the relative frequency of use -- and prohibitions against polite use -- of various kinds of swear words.

The sacred and profane are an odd pairing in most contexts, but stand comfortably together in foul language in most cultures. That's partly because they both pull concepts where polite society says they don't belong, said Geoffrey Nunberg, author of Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Controversial Times and a researcher at Stanford University's Center for the Study of Language and Information.

Obscenity takes bedroom and bathroom activities and drags them out into the living room, he said. Blasphemy, on the other hand, hauls heaven down into the common world.

Both feel satisfyingly "wrong" when we want to vent our frustrations.

Faith words are still a vital part of the salty lexicon in the United States and other countries. The specific words used shift from nation to nation. And as with Mr. Goldberg, individual beliefs don't necessarily tip off what words someone will use. Expletives can be elaborate: "The 24 [uniquely male body parts] of the 12 apostles of Christ!" was one example in Spanish that Dr. Aman found. Another intricate Spanish exclamation: "I [bodily function] on the carpenter who felled the tree to build the cross to nail Jesus on!"

The exclamations can be untranslatable idioms: Someone in Cairo, Egypt, might yell the Arabic for "God destroy your house!" in a situation where someone from Cairo, Illinois, would say "Holy mackerel!" Neither makes much literal sense.

(More common on the Egyptian street would be angry references to the private parts of a nemesis' mother, said Yasser Hegazy, a translator and Arabic tutor who lives in Cairo.)

There was a time when using religious language in the wrong place or manner could get you thrown in the stocks or even burned at the stake. And harsh attitudes toward blasphemy aren't simply ancient curiosities.

Laws against blasphemy are still on the books in Italy, Spain and Germany, for instance. And Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini notoriously issued a death sentence in 1989 against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses -- a sentence upheld by subsequent Muslim leaders.

The longtime prohibitions against "bad words" fueled a dizzying array of euphemisms.

Heck and Sam Hill stand in for hell. Pete takes the place of God, as in "For Pete's sake." (There is no link to St. Peter, word experts say). Good golly originally had nothing to do with Miss Molly. Like gosh and gad, golly is a safer word for "God." Jiminy Christmas, Jeez Louise, Judas Priest and even the Crocodile Hunter's "Crikey!" soften the straightforward J.C.

Other languages used similar strategies. The "Sacre bleu!" shouted by Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast means "Sacred blue!" "Bleu" rhymes with "Dieu," French for God. So the animated candlestick is yelling, "My gosh," more or less.

Some words that seem like they should be religious may not be. The British "bloody" has been linked by some to "by Our Lady" (a reference to Mary) or the blood of Jesus. But the Oxford English Dictionary says the slang term's origin is uncertain, perhaps linked to a description of rowdy aristocrats, or "bloods," in the 1700s.

But if pop culture is an indicator, the need for euphemisms has waned.

Broadcast TV remains more cautious than many other cultural outlets. While "Oh my God!" can be heard virtually anywhere in prime time, ads are still a blasphemy-free zone. For instance, a candy bar ad not long ago had an angry guy shouting "Great oogly moogly!"

Cable, from The Sopranos to Bill Maher, bars few if any words. Comedy Channel's taboo-shredding South Park started as an Internet-distributed short that featured a wrestling match between Jesus and Santa Claus.

Movie ratings also indicate a softening of attitudes said Jim Wall, the former editor of Christian Century, who is a longtime advisor to the appeals board of the Motion Picture Association of America.

"The ratings are designed to reflect what the rating board feels the average American parent would expect to find," he said.

So even one f-word used in a sexual context is still pretty much an automatic path to an R rating, he said. But a bunch of religious expletives aren't likely to move a movie beyond PG-13.

In fact, the official explanation of the ratings on the MPAA Web site mentions violence, profanity, drug abuse and sexual content as factors in determining ratings -- but nothing about religious language.

The softening of standards -- or degradation, depending on your point of view -- can be traced to the salty language of soldiers coming home from World War II, Dr. Aman said. Vietnam, and the challenges to all authority during that era, gave another boost to blasphemy and obscenity filtering into standard use.

Not everyone has gone along, of course. In a recent study, kids and their parents were given lists of "bad words' and asked to rate how bad they were. About 20 percent of the parents said some of the religious words were worse than some of the sexual words, said Dr. Jay, the psychology professor.

Count Dave Haverty among those still offended by religious expletives. The president of Preview Family Movie and TV Review writes reviews that appear on the Web site. Repeated use of such terms will bump a show down on his ratings.

Not that he'd be entirely above sin if he whacked his thumb with a hammer.

"I'm a Christian and I know what I would probably yell," he said. "Not that I'm proud of it. But it's a reaction."


Here's a selection of religiously themed euphemisms:

1. Cheesus!
2. Dadblame!
3. Dadblast!
4. Dadburn!
5. Doggone!
6. Egad!
7. Gad!
8. Gadzooks!
9. Gee!
10. Geewhillikers!
11. Gosh darn!
12. Holy cow!
13. Holy mackerel!
14. Jeepers creepers!
15. Zounds!


Experts describe different kinds of taboo words found in every human culture:

Obscenity generally refers to sexual activity.

Vulgarity generally refers to non-sexual bodily functions.

Blasphemy generally refers to aspects of God, saints or other sacred topics. ("Damn," and "hell," mild by today's standards, were once considered blasphemous.)

We don't have a specific name for nasty -- but not obscene or vulgar -- terms aimed at family members: "Yer muddah wears Army boots!"

And, of course, the categories can be combined in a single curse. (Use your imagination.)


For more information about the history and use of blasphemy:

1. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer

2. The Anatomy of Swearing by Ashley Montagu

3. Cursing in America: A Psycholinguistic Study of Dirty Language in the Courts, in the Movies, in the Schoolyards and on the Streets by Timothy Jay

4. Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English by Geoffrey Hughes

5. Slang and Euphemism: A Dictionary of Oaths, Curses, Insults, Ethnic Slurs, Sexual Slang and Metaphor, Drug Talk, College Lingo, and Related Matters by Richard A. Spears

6. Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression edited by Dr. Reinhold Aman

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