OMG! Seriously?: On Language and Swearing
October 21, 2013 § 2 Comments
In today’s Boston Globe, I read a column that I thought had been printed by mistake. Or maybe it was a leftover from 1976. Jennifer Graham, a columnist for the venerable (and quite good) Boston daily, is upset that OMG and it’s more offensive variety, “Oh my God!” are lingua franca in our culture today. She’s upset that blasphemy is everyday language. To which I say, where have you been for the past 40 years, lady?
I am from a culture where all the choice swear words are religious-based. French Canadians have a whole range of blasphemous and offensive words for all situations, the worst of which is “Tabarnak!” That literally means “tabernacle.” Other highlights are “câlisse!” and “osti!” (chalice and the holy host, respectively). If you really wanna set grandma’s wig on fire: “osti de tabarnak câlisse” will do the trick. Once more, in English, that’s “holy host of the tabernacle, chalice!” Sounds much better in québécois French, trust me. When I was a kid, these were very bad words (even Anglos in Québec swear in French, it’s much more fun), respectable people did not use them. But, by the time I was an adult, they were everywhere, even in polite company, including in newspapers, on TV, and even my dear great aunt once said “tabarnak!” (I nearly fell over).
It doesn’t take a linguist to figure out that the ramping up of swearing is due to the general breakdown of authority in western culture as a whole in the past 40 years. Sometimes even I am stunned by what I hear coming out of the mouths of my students in the hallways and around campus. Some of the names they call each other, even in jest, would flip the wig of my grandmothers, I can tell you that much.
But. Oh my god? Seriously? Graham is upset by this one because she thinks it insults people’s value systems. Oddly, I learned this particular gem within my Catholic family as a kid. For that matter, my memory of this gem of a swear is that I have tended to hear it from the mouths of Catholics, especially devout ones. Sacrilegious? Oh, heck yes. But spend an hour watching Irish TV and you’ll see what I mean.
It seems to me that Jennifer Graham is about a generation or two late in her hand-wringing over the use of oh my god in pop culture.
I can remember an occasion twenty years ago when a reader wrote in to my then-local central Massachusetts daily newspaper to complain of the exclamation “Geez” in a cartoon (I think it was Garfield), arguing it was taking the name of Jesus in vain. That said, it really was a shock in the late 1960s to hear my cousin, on vacation from college, saying, “Jesus Christ” as a common irreverent interjection at the beginning of half her sentences.
The column in the Globe mentions the verbotenness of ‘jeez’ as a derivative of ‘Jesus’ (or ‘Jebus’ in Homer Simpson’s world).
I think part of my take also comes from a class basis. Cursing in the working classes, where I grew up, was pretty common. Fuck, in particular, is a work of art for some people, like my old man. What he could do with that word was art. And as class has become less relevant in terms of pop culture (though not in other ways), in many ways, the vulgar has moved into the mainstream. Just look at fashion!