Evil Curse Words and Social Inequality – Part 2: The Superstitious Origins of Profanity

Evil Curse Words and Social Inequality – Part 2: The Superstitious Origins of Profanity

And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death.  

-Leviticus 24:16

Read part 1

The concept of curse words finds its origins in the ancient superstitions of our comparatively ignorant ancestors, who believed that the utterance of certain words and phrases could invoke the wrath of gods and even summon forth demons and evil spirits. It was believed in many earlier civilizations that it was possible to “curse” a mortal enemy with the simple expression of a word or a phrase. Drawing upon the works of various scholars in the relevant fields, Steinbach-Eicke and Eicke observe:

In ancient sources, we find the invocation of supernatural entities (e.g. gods, demons) or initiated human specialists (e.g. priests, magicians) who performed a ritual for the client. Thus, cursing was a religious or magical action with a distinct, violative but defensive aim.

A few recent publications on curses in the ancient world illustrate this characterisation: in her book about cursing in cuneiform and Hebrew texts, Kitz (2014: 3) defines curses as “petitions to the divine world to render judgement and execute harm on identified, hostile forces”. At the beginning of her overview of Ancient Greek and Roman curses, Eidinow (2013: 1877) describes such curses as speech acts “invoking supernatural powers and reinforced ritual”. [1]

The very notion of ‘profanity’ is steeped in religious origins and was, and in some countries still is, inextricably bound to the concept of blasphemy. The Longman Dictionary defines ‘profanity’ as:

1 [countable usually pluraloffensive words or religious words used in a way that shows you do not respect God or holy things.

2 [uncountable] formal behaviour that shows you do not respect God or holy things.

I’m an atheist who regularly speaks out against the insanity and barbarity of religion and god-belief, so regardless of the language I use in doing so, this is, according to the dictionary definition, profanity. Of course, to argue that profanity is limited to its original context is to commit the genetic fallacy, but its roots do still serve us in an examination of the origins of the concept.

Returning to the concept of the ‘curse word’, there are numerous examples throughout history which demonstrate that people believed, and some still do, that the mere utterance of words can metaphysically affect corporeal reality. In The Oxford Handbook of Taboo Language, Allan writes:

‘For Ancient Hindus, Sanskrit vedas had to be in the pure form (suddah) described by Panini in the…(fourth century BCE), ‘A mantra [hymn] recited with incorrect and “careless” arrangement of varna (letters) [reacts] like a thunderbolt and gets the reciter destroyed by the God Indra’ (Kachru 1984: 178, quoting a sutra). Why? Because it is blasphemous to deviate from the prescribed rendition of the holy text. At about the same period, Plato warns against speaking ill of the gods…’ [2]

To offer up an entire corpus of examples from every religion and culture from the ancient world to the modern one would fill an entire book, so I will give you one last example from Christendom.

In medieval Christendom, it was considered dangerous blasphemy to utter phrases which included God, Christ and body parts. For example, it was believed that by merely saying “by God’s bones” or “by God’s nails” out loud, Christ would actually be torn to pieces in heaven, as such phrases were seen to have served as a kind of reverse eucharist, capable of disassembling the ethereal body of Christ. [3]

As bizarre and ridiculous to the modern mind that such concepts are today, the idea of the metaphysical power within written or phonetic expressions of arbitrarily constructed characters (words) persists, even among the non-religious. The woke movement, commonly accused of being a politically religious movement by its critics, views words as being imbued with autonomous, metaphysical agency, believing them capable of shifting social paradigms and harming entire groups of human beings by nothing more than their mere expression.

Here we see a throwback to the more superstitious origins of the concept of the curse word. An example of this, and there are plenty available in this growing climate of political correctness and “wokeness”, can be found in the reaction to a tweet I posted which referred to religion as a ‘retarded relic’. The word retarded, although not applied to people in my post, was seen by woke commentators as being somehow endowed with a metaphysical ability to disenfranchise vulnerable people with learning and/or physical disabilities, regardless of the intention or application of its use. It was deemed almost magical in its ability to harm or curse the afflicted group by virtue of nothing more than its expression. Critics of free speech appear to be arguing that if we allow the popularisation of such words, which were used as discriminatory pejoratives in more ignorant times, then we will bring back those times and cause the regression of society. But do such words, in and of themselves, possess this spell-casting power to make entire societies unlearn all we have learned since those more ignorant times? Is our scientific understanding of the heliocentric solar system at peril each and every time we use the expression ‘sunrise’, given that we now understand that the sun doesn’t actually rise? Might the words we use in variant social and historical periods and circumstances also have variant applications and outcomes? Could calling someone a “funny cunt”, which is a compliment in Australia and other countries, advance gender-inequality, for example? I guess what I am really asking is, do words have supernatural powers that can affect corporeal reality? Can a word, by itself, alter reality? I think most sane (ableist slur alert!) and rational people would agree that words do not have this type of magical agency.

Part 3 coming soon…

References

  1. Image credit: Atheist Republic and Blasphemous Art
  2. Elisabeth Steinbach-Eicke and Sven Eicke,14.1 Cursing and Swearing: Ancient and Modern, in; Nico Nassenstein and Anne Storch, Swearing and Cursing, Contexts and Practices in a Critical Linguistic Perspective, Mouten de Gruyter, pp. 303-304.
  3. Keith Allan, Religious and Ideologically Motivated Taboos; 14.3: Blasphemy and Profanity, in; Keith Allan (ed), The Oxford Handbook of Taboo Words and Language, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2019, p. 254.
  4. Melissa Mohr, Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 61.