I’ve started reading Jeremy Hultin’s The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and Its Environment, really enjoying it, and plan to review it before Christmas. But speaking of offensive speech…
Check out Deane Galbraith’s scatalogical posts, Shitting Christ and Shitlessness in Paradise. The first concerns John Milton’s caricature of the Catholic eucharist: “When Christ’s body has been driven through all the stomach’s filthy channels it shoots it out –- one shudders even to mention it –- into the latrine.” (On Christian Doctrine, 6.560; tr. in Maggie Kilgour, From Communion to Cannibalism). The second is about Artaxerxes II brandishing his enemy’s feces as evidence of the demonic: “Mithridates’ vermin-laden excrement bore graphic witness to the corruption (moral and physical) of his body and the demons resident therein.” (Bruce Lincoln, Religion, Empire & Torture: The Case of Achaemenian Persia, with a Postscript on Abu Ghraib. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2007: 93.)
Galbraith uses the word “shit” in his blogpost titles, no doubt to ensure readership, which resonated perfectly with something I read just hours before in the first chapter of Hultin’s book. Why are certain words so culturally offensive? Why is “shit” a swear but “feces” not? Linguists like Rom Harre have suggested that offensive language involves displacements so that “the social force of the expressive word is greater the further apart the contexts are from which it was taken and into which it has been inserted”, and thus “the power of bad language comes from the distance of its displacement from the original contexts of use, and in that respect, obscenity and blasphemy are typical metaphors” (Hultin, p 8).
But Hultin points out that (1) only some displaced words have this power. “Poop and shit are both ‘displaced’ when used as expletives; but poop has almost no function as an expletive, and this despite the fact that it begins and ends with a plosive, which might have made it ideal for this purpose” (ibid). Also that (2) the offensiveness of some words is actually diluted when displaced. Words like “cunt” and “fuck” are not only just as offensive when used in the doctor’s office, they can be “even more offensive when used of sex (‘he fucked her’) than when displaced (‘he fucked up’).” (ibid) And why is “Christ!” more blasphemous than “God!” when angrily shouted out in frustration?
Despite the attempts of our best linguists, there’s probably no tidy way of accounting for the evolution of obscene/vulgar/blasphemous speech. Some words are offensive because, well, they just are. It’s fascinating that some languages are completely devoid of obscene vocabulary (like Native American Hopi) and that people like the Amerindians, Polynesians, and Japanese don’t swear much at all, while Ukrainians, on the other hand, have a mighty offensive repertoire at their disposal. We’ll see what the early Christians thought about bad language when I finish Hultin’s book.