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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. to Reprove Time-Honored Habit

NEW YORK -- Incensed by what it sees as a virtual pandemic of verbal vulgarity issuing from the diverse likes of Howard Stern, Bono of U2 and Robert Novak, the U.S. Senate is poised to consider a bill that would sharply increase the penalty for obscenity on the air.

By raising the fines that would be levied against offending broadcasters some fifteenfold, to a fee of about $500,000 per crudity broadcast, and by threatening to revoke the licenses of repeat polluters, the Senate seeks to return to the public square the gentler tenor of yesteryear, when seldom were heard any scurrilous words, and famous guys were not foul mouthed all day.

Yet researchers who study the evolution of language and the psychology of swearing say they have no idea what model of linguistic gentility the critics might have in mind. Cursing, they say, is a human universal. Every language, dialect or patois ever studied, living or dead, spoken by millions or by a small tribe, turns out to have its share of forbidden speech, some variant on comedian George Carlin's famous list of the seven dirty words that are not supposed to be uttered on radio or television.

Young children will memorize the illicit inventory long before they can grasp its sense, said linguistics scholar John McWhorter, and literary giants have always constructed their art on its spine.

The Jacobean dramatist Ben Jonson peppered his plays with fackings and "peremptorie Asses," and Shakespeare could hardly quill a stanza without inserting profanities of the day like "zounds" or "sblood" -- offensive contractions of "God's wounds" and "God's blood" -- or some sexual pun. The title "Much Ado About Nothing," said John McWhorter, a scholar of linguistics at the Manhattan Institute, is a word play on "Much Ado About an O Thing," the O thing being a reference to female genitalia.

The very concept of a swear word originates in the profound importance that ancient cultures placed on swearing by the name of a god or gods. In ancient Babylon, swearing by the name of a god was meant to give absolute certainty against lying, said Guy Deutscher, a linguist at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, "and people believed that swearing falsely by a god would bring the terrible wrath of that god upon them." A warning against any abuse of the sacred oath is reflected in the biblical commandment that one must not "take the Lord's name in vain," and even today courtroom witnesses swear on the Bible that they are telling the whole truth and nothing but.

Yet neither biblical commandment nor the most zealous Victorian censor can elide from the human mind its hand-wringing over the unruly human body. Discomfort over body functions never sleeps, Burridge said, and the need for an ever-fresh selection of euphemisms about dirty subjects has long been an impressive engine of linguistic invention.

Once a word becomes too closely associated with a specific body function, she said, once it becomes too evocative of what should not be evoked, it starts to enter the realm of the taboo and must be replaced by a new, gauzier euphemism.

For example, the word "coffin" originally meant an ordinary box, but once it became associated with death, that was it for a "shoe coffin" or "thinking outside the coffin." The taboo sense of a word, Burridge said, "always drives out any other senses it might have had."