[pruh-fan-i-tee, proh-]
The original meaning of the adjective profane (from the Latin for "in front of or outside the temple") was to refer to items not belonging to the church. E.g. "The fort is the oldest profane building in the town, but the local monastery is older, and is the oldest sacred building," or "besides designing churches, he also designed many profane buildings".

As a result, "profane" and "profanity" has therefore come to describe a word, expression, gesture, or other social behavior which is socially constructed or interpreted as insulting, rude and vulgar or desecrating or showing disrespect.

Other words commonly used to describe profane language or its use include: cuss, curse, derogatory language, swearing, expletive, oath, bad word, dirty word, strong language, irreverent language, obscene language, and blasphemous language. In many cultures it is less profane for an adult to curse than it is for a child, who may be reprimanded for cursing.

Types of swearing

Steven Pinker's book The Stuff of Thought breaks profanity down into five categories:

  • Dysphemistic swearing - Exact opposite of euphemism. Forces listener to think about negative matter. Using the wrong euphemism has a dysphemistic effect. (Example: He fucks her!)
  • Abusive swearing - for abuse or intimidation or insulting of others (Example: You motherfucker! or Fuck you!)
  • Idiomatic swearing - swearing without really referring to the matter.. just using the words to arouse interest, to show off, and express to peers that the setting is informal. (Example: Fuck, man.)
  • Emphatic swearing - to emphasise something with swearing. (Example: It was so fucking big!)
  • Cathartic swearing - when something bad happens like coffee spilling, people curse. One evolutionary theory asserts it is meant to tell the audience that you're undergoing a negative emotion. (Example: Aww, FUCK!)


A profanity will have an original meaning (which may change across time and language) which in itself may give some cause for offense. Additionally, many profanities will have applied meanings of their own, usually associated to their context and which therefore may vary significantly depending upon the intended purpose of the word in the sentence. For example, "fuck", a common (often considered strong) profanity in English, is a verb for the act of sexual intercourse and may be used literally in this sense. It is also used in the context of an exclamation for example ("Holy Fuck!") or ("Fucking hell!") ("I'll Fucking Kill YOU!") often to refer to acts of violence ("He really fucked that guy up.") ("I'm looking for a fucking guy!"), or to an error ("You fucked up again, you're fired.") ("Damn Motherfucker! Shit! Look what I have done!"). It can also be used to add emphasis to a sentence.

The degree to which a profanity is offensive relies upon how the use of the word affects an individual. Some will consider the original meaning of a word (for example, the sexual act) to be offensive or a subject not fit for polite conversation while others will have no objection to these subject matters. Some will feel that certain words, having an established social taboo are simply offensive, regardless of any context; others will find profanities offensive mainly when used in a way deliberately intended to offend.

Furthermore, some may be in the habit of using profanity in order to seem cool. Thus, insults can even be used as terms of endearment. Other situations in which profanity is celebrated include poetic slanging matches, or flytings, in which skill in the employment of vituperative attack becomes a virtue and considerable linguistic license is given to the combatants.

A 2007 peer reviewed study by the University of East Anglia found that banning profanity in the workplace and reprimanding staff for using it could have a negative effect on morale and motivation. According to the study, while swearing in front of senior staff or customers should be seriously discouraged or banned, in other circumstances it helped foster solidarity among employees and relieved frustration, stress or other feelings.

Finally, profanities may cause offense, regardless of context, if they have some religious meaning which may cause their use to offend those who follow a particular religion. The original meaning of the term was restricted to blasphemy, sacrilege or saying the Abrahamic God's name (or an identifier such as Lord or God) in vain, such as "Jesus Christ, that was close!". Such religious profanity is referred to as blasphemy.

As the concept of profanity has been extended to include expressions with scatological, derogatory, racist, or sexual interpretations, the broader concept of "politically incorrect" language has emerged, with religious meaning playing a varying role, and the more vague and inclusive interpretation blurring the distinction between categories of offensiveness. This modern concept of profanity has evolved differently in different cultures and languages. For example, many profanities in Canadian French are a corruption of religious terminology (the sacres), while many English obscenities tend to refer to sexuality or scatology. A term that functions as a profanity in one language may often lack any profane quality when translated into another language.

Western history

Terms of profanity have historically been taboo words. Some words that were originally considered profane have become much less offensive with the increasing secularity of society. Others, primarily racial or ethnic epithets, can be considered part of hate speech and are now considered more profane than they once were.

William Shakespeare hinted at the word cunt in Hamlet, Twelfth Night and Henry V: Hamlet makes reference to "country matters" when he tries to lay his head in Ophelia's lap; Malvolio has the salacious line (although the term cunt was an accepted euphemism for vagina in the early sixteenth century) "These be her very c's, her u's, and her t's, and thus she makes her great p's"; and the French Princess Katherine is amused by the word gown for its similarity to the French con. Interestingly, the word cunt, while retaining its original meaning in America, has changed in meaning somewhat in Great Britain in the past thirty years. Where American usage of the word mostly refers to either female anatomy or (in extreme cases) an ill-tempered woman, cunt in the UK has attained the status of a gender-neutral insult.

In the U.S. today, racial slurs are uniquely profane words in that they are considered highly offensive and hurtful. This is most clearly shown in the attention given to use of the word nigger, now effectively banned in American public discourse, although many African-Americans use the word nigga context is very important; thus, Americans of African descent might use 'nigger' in informal situations among themselves, without being considered offensive. Blacks are now becoming more sensitive to the word being used even amongst themselves and may still offend. The word in mention, in certain social groups, as a casual reference to black people is still in frequent use. Some mistakenly associate the unrelated word niggardly (meaning "stingy") with 'nigger." As with other types of profanity, Words such as faggot and fag, though incidentally sexual in nature, are considered highly offensive and derogatory toward gay people, yet have undergone similar changes to nigga when being used by the gay community. The most famous example of this is prominent Sex Advice Columnist Dan Savage originally having his readers send letters with the salutation "Hey Faggot".

Many of the words now considered most 'profane' are held to be so because they were created to insult and disparage a particular group (see pejorative terms). Some of the targets of these words have however attempted to reclaim them and reduce their power as insults. Other ethnic slurs like coon, porch monkey, Alabama porch monkey, afrodite, sausage lips, tar baby, darkie (African-American), dottie (Indian/Pakistani) , chink, gook (Asian), beaner, wetback, spic (Hispanic-American), guinea, wop, dago (Italian), honky, gringo, cracker (whites), heeb (Jewish), kraut (German -- used especially during World War II), sand nigger, raghead, towelhead, "rug merchant" (Sikh, or Arab in the US); and pejoratives like fattie, retard, and redneck or hillbilly aren't entirely profane at all times, but can be considered very offensive when used in the company of certain people, and not socially acceptable in polite settings or social situations.

The offensiveness or perceived intensity or vulgarity of the various profanities can change over time, with certain words becoming more or less offensive as time goes on. For example, in modern times the word piss is usually considered mildly vulgar and somewhat impolite, whereas the King James Bible unblushingly employs it where modern translators would prefer the word urine (2 Kings 18:27; Isa 36:12) or urinate (1 Sam 25:22, 25:34; 1 Kings 14:10, 16:11, 21:21; 2 Kings 9:8). The word cunt has seen a similar evolution; its ancestor—queynte—was not considered vulgar at all, but the word is now considered among the most offensive in the English language.

Profanity as blasphemy

The original meaning of the term was restricted to blasphemy, sacrilege or saying God's name (or an identifier such as "Lord" or "God") in vain. Profanity represented secular indifference to religion or religious figures, while blasphemy was a more offensive attack on religion and religious figures, and considered sinful.

Profanities in the original meaning of blasphemous profanity are part of the ancient tradition of the comic cults, which laughed and scoffed at the deity. An example from Gargantua and Pantagruel is "Christ, look ye, its Mere de ... merde ... shit, Mother of God.


The relative severity of various British profanities, as perceived by the public, was studied on behalf of the British Broadcasting Standards Commission, Independent Television Commission, BBC and Advertising Standards Authority; the results of this jointly commissioned research were published in December 2000 in a paper called "Delete Expletives" It listed the profanities in order of decreasing severity, the top ten being cunt, motherfucker, fuck, wanker, nigger, bastard, prick, bollocks, arsehole, and paki in that order. About 83% of respondents regarded cunt as "very severe"; 16% thought the same about shit and 10% about crap. Only about 1% thought cunt was "not swearing"; 9% thought the same about shit and 32% of crap.

International languages

International auxiliary languages are often assumed to have little or no profanity, but this varies from one language to another. The basic criterion for inclusion in Interlingua is widespread international use, and this can be as true of a profanity as any other word or phrase. Thus, expressions such as cunno (cunt), mierda (shit), and pipi (pee-pee) may be used in Interlingua. Culo (ass or butt) and its derivative incular (to butt-fuck) are also Interlingua expressions. Fottar (to fuck) is used much as in English, e.g., "Fotta te!" ("Fuck you!") or "Mi auto es fottate!" ("My car is fucked!").

Books containing famous uses of profanity

See also


Bibliography - sources

External links

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