Steve Ray has a fun piece…

… on Crap, Castration, and Two Creations, concerning inter alia the biblical authors’ lack of hesitance in using… organic… imagery to get a point across.

I wrote on something similar once in treating of Swearing and Vulgarity (they are not the same thing).

What’s interesting about vulgarity is that a word that (in English, at any rate) emerges from the lower class is considered dirty.  In post-Norman Conquest England, the Anglish speakers were the lower orders while the French conquerors used a more Latinate tongue.  Consequently you wind up with lots of synonyms that mean exactly the same thing, but the words of the conquered are “crude” or “dirty” while the words of the conquerers are considered refined.  A Norman noblewoman mentruated, expectorated, and perspired while her serving maid bled, spat, and sweated.  The conquerers copulated, defecated, flatulated, and urinated while the conquered (pardon my English) fucked, shitted, farted, and pissed.  The meanings of the words are identical, but the words originating in the languages of the conquered were designated as “filthy”.  It’s interesting how the English class system still exerts this dead hand of oppression on our use of the language, long after the distinction between Norman and Anglo-Saxon disappeared and long after the English class system ceased to have anything like the impact on Americans that it did on Britons.

I suspect that every language has certain “taboo” words.  Blasphemy (whether against God or human social norms) tells us what a society values above all.  In an age that revered God, there were certain things you Could Not Say because they insulted the Holy One.  Today, blasphemers continue to pay backward homage to God by always blaspheming the God of Abraham and never blaspheming Quetzlcoatl or Thor.

That said, we still have blasphemy and it still tells us what is sacrosanct to us.  Revulsion at rape jokes, or use of the word “nigger” (by somebody outside the black community), revulsion at words like “kike” or “wetback” or various other racial slurs and so forth make perfectly clear what is valued by what is taboo to speak.

The problem our culture faces is not too many taboos, but too few.  Taboos are often commentaries on fundamental irreducible canons of human decency.  They are a way of saying, “We don’t *have* to ‘explain’ why its wrong to treat this good thing with contempt.  The iconoclast has to explain why it’s right.”  Our culture of blasphemy and opposition to taboo has been steadily eating away at human dignity because it has “overcome” the taboo that respected God’s dignity and is now destroying human dignity.  Miley Cyrus “overcame a taboo” recently.  She also barfed all over her own dignity as a human being.  Every fresh assault on human dignity begins with the assumption that a taboo is “irrational” when it is usually highly rational or even pre-rational.  A civilization that reaches the point where it is asking, “Why not kill children and the weak?” is not a civilization that is arriving at clarity.  It is a civilization that has gone blind.  To see through everything is the same as not seeing.  We’re not there yet.  Some things are still blasphemous and therefore somethings are still taboo.  Raping women is not funny.  Degrading people because of their skin color is evil.  Using them for body part harvest, or murdering them, or treating them as raw materials is wrong and so, while we do them, we do not speak of it.  All the “envelope pushing” and “barrier breaking” of our culture is ultimately ordered, not toward liberation, but toward enslavement.  Taboos are usually there because they preserve an awareness of something deeply sacred that we destroy at our peril.

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  • ivan_the_mad

    Your thought on taboo comports well with Kirk’s thought on prejudice:

    “Prejudice is not bigotry or superstition, although prejudice sometimes may degenerate into these. Prejudice is pre-judgment, the answer with which intuition and ancestral consensus of opinion supply a man when he lacks either time or knowledge to arrive at a decision predicated upon pure reason.” — Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind

    A professor of mine once gave a rule of thumb for the etymological origin of an English word: If it’s a four letter word, it’s Anglo-Saxon.

  • Joe

    I thought the past tense of “shit” is “shat”? It just sounds better! “He shitted in the outhouse.” vs “He shat in the outhouse.” As a wordsmith, what do you prefer?

  • enness

    This is interesting. I would agree, while noting a major exception like, perhaps, mental illness. I won’t get into the story of how I learned this, but apparently in Japan there has long been a big problem with people committing suicide rather than expose themselves and their families to shame because it’s just not talked about. Otherwise? Pushing envelopes is treated by our culture as a virtue in itself, like challenging everything an authority figure tells you.

    May I ask you something? How would you deal with habitual blasphemy from a church-goer who has been made aware that it bothers you? (Your observations totally resonate with me since, while I swear sometimes, there are certain things I never say.)

    • chezami

      The way you deal with any other wilful and obnoxious sin: if they won’t stop, they try to stay out of their way as much as possible. If you can’t, pray for them and commend them to God with forgiveness.

      • enness

        Okay. About what I figured. I can’t say much, not that I think anyone would recognize themselves. I just dread having it creep into my brain and vocabulary somehow when I’m not looking.