On Profanity

So yesterday I was thinking about profanity.

This rose out of a discussion at the blog Pharyngula, in reference to an article where somebody had trotted out the tired old canard about there being no atheists in foxholes. (Not only are there plenty, there’s at least one statue to them. But I digress.) The article was generalized schlock, and not really worth a good shredding, but the basic premise was that merely because one says “Oh, Jesus,” when a missile is coming at your head does not mean that one is having a foxhole conversion, unless an equal number of people have put their faith in the great god “Oh, Fuck.”

This is all true, but generally neither here nor there. But it occurs to me that I swear like a Catholic. (A foulmouthed Catholic, I grant you.) It’s a legacy of living with a Catholic grandmother. “Holy Mary, Mother of God!” “Jesusmaryandjoseph!” (You have to run that one together pretty rapidly.) And under rare circumstances, when I’m out of every other profanity I can think of, “Saint Francis!” although I’ve never gotten the delivery down on that one. My grandmother could whip off a “Saint Francis!” laden with such nuance that you knew her buttons had been pushed until only divine intervention could hope to avert disaster. I just don’t have that gift.

I am not Catholic, nor even Christian, of course. But obscenities are cultural relics. You pick them up from your surroundings. Which is probably why I say “uff da!” after ten years in Minnesota, even if they never quite sold me on “ish.”*

In my pagan days, like many a wild-eyed young Wiccan before and since, I attempted to excise my vocabulary of Judeo-Christian verbage. Also like many before and since, my cursing sounded contrived, and lacked spontenatity. I was reduced to the basics, like “fuck.” We can argue that this is indeed a useful word, an excellent word, a word capable of great subtlety and multiple applications, a word that can be verb and noun and adjective and adverb and probably a few other things I don’t know the names of, since my sixth grade teacher was somewhat reluctant to diagram this particular term. But nevertheless, it’s nice to have other options. A pair of pliers is an unbelievably useful tool, but it’s nice to have a screwdriver and a hammer, too. The toolkit of obscenity requires variety, or it gets stale. Well, staler.

My gradual slide into skeptical agnosticism was accompanied, somewhat ironically, by a return to my Catholic obscenities. As Terry Pratchett once said, it takes a special kind of atheist to yell “Nonexistant relic of an outmoded belief system!” when you stub your toe. It lacks a certain zing.

I have at least one friend who starts cursing in Spanish when she’s particularly miffed (presumably another regression to childhood) and long ago had a friend who would say…well, I have no idea what she was saying, she was Mien, but the delivery would lead one to believe it was fairly vile. So contemplating this made me wonder what other weird childhood obscenities people may have picked up that they’re still dragging around all these years later.

Edit: And how could I forget!? Grandma’s all time favorite was “Saint AnthoNY!” She invoked this particular minor deity during every moment of family strife, and for years, I thought Saint Anthony was the patron of fighting with your kids. (I do occasionally let slip a “saint anthony!” but it’s a specialized usage.)

*It’s like “ick,” a mild expression of disgust. Except they say “ish.” Don’t ask me.

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