My new book, The Stuff of Thought, has a chapter on swearing. In my next book I will discuss historic declines in violence. To my surprise, the two topics may be connected. In all languages, taboo words refer to emotionally fraught concepts: the supernatural, disease, bodily secretions, sexual depravity, and social outcasts. But the particular curses vary. In traditional Catholic societies, swearing is religious: the standard profanity in Québecois French: is Accursed tabernacle! With the sexual revolution, the F-word is no longer such a big deal, but with our increased sensitivity to racism, the N-word can end a career. Centuries ago in England religious swearing gave way to our familiar sexual and scatological four-letter words. As the historian Geoffrey Hughes has noted, “The days when the dandelion could be called the pissabed, a heron could be called a shitecrow and the windhover could be called the windfucker have passed away with the exuberant phallic advertisement of the codpiece.” What does this have to do with violence? Contrary to the popular belief that we are living in horrifically violent times, rates of homicide in the West have plummeted ten- to a hundredfold over the centuries. The sociologist Norbert Elias noted that this pacification process, correlated with other changes in everyday manners. Starting in the Late Middle Ages, people stopped blowing their noses onto the dining room table, urinating onto curtains, defecating in public, and giving their eight-year-olds advice about prostitution. Taboos on speaking about excretion and sexuality were part of this development. Ellis lumps these trends into a “civilizing process,” in which the formation of states and complex social networks forced people to exercise their superego (today we would say their prefrontal cortex) to inhibit their first impulses. If this idea is right, it’s another example of how the walls between the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences are obsolete: Medieval history, word usage, and brain function are all connected. Steven Pinker is a professor at Harvard University. His book The Stuff of Thought is out now in paperback.
Originally published September 2, 2008