Pick the Obscenity: FUBAR, Snafus, or Beheadings

Something leaped out at me from my colleague David Gates' provocative review of the upcoming Ken Burns World War II documentary, "The War." As he wrote, "some affiliates—which didn't seem to mind the obscenely gruesome Holocaust pictures or the scene where a machine gun blows off a soldier's head—had a problem with the four uses of cusswords, one of which is alluded to in the anagrammatic title of episode five, "FUBAR." (For you youngsters, this was a GI term standing for "F---ed Up Beyond All Recognition." Perhaps it was a snafu to include that.)

This is not news, of course. Films get in trouble with the motion picture ratings board for saying the F in FUBAR and snafu, but not for a high, gruesome body count. You can stop a pleasant dinner cold by uttering that word, but not by describing in gory detail the latest atrocity on the battlefront. For insight into the peculiarities of profanity, I turned to psychologist Steven Pinker's new book, "The Stuff of Thought."

Why is sex, which at first glance (and, if you're lucky, subsequent glances) seems like a nice thing, the source of so many taboo words, including the above? Because "sex has high stakes," Pinker writes, "including exploitation, disease, illegitimacy, incest, jealousy, spousal abuse, cuckoldry, . . . and rape." As a result, "plain speaking about sex"--and what is plainer that using variations on the f-word as noun, adjective and adverb?--"conveys the attitude that sex is a casual matter." Society as a whole does not want that conveyed, and if you think we're beyond that, Pinker counsels, notice that for all our sexual liberation most of us "still don't copulate in public, swap spouses at the end of a dinner party, [or] have sex with their siblings and children." Most people want to keep it that way. Sex-loaded terms starting with f--- threaten to erode the barriers we erect to behaviors like the above, so we treat them as taboo. Indeed, this aversion to casual sex is so embedded in the human psyche that trying to reason your way around it---surely no form of sex, casual or otherwise, is as bad as battlefield atrocities?---just doesn't work.

Once a word becomes taboo, of course, it can be employed to great rhetorical effect, conveying the speaker's emotion and triggering emotion in the listener. Compare the emotional punch of "pick up your dog's s--- and stop him from pissing on my roses!" to "pick up your dog's droppings and stop him from urinating on my roses!" Which speaker sounds so angry that you figure you better placate him (or get a bigger, meaner dog)? Vulgarity has its uses. And a word's taboo status can itself give the word an emotional wallop. If you want sympathy for how your boss treated you, you're more likely to get it if you tell your friends "he f---ed me over" than if you say "he treated me unfairly."

Pinker is a linguist by training, so his analysis of sex-themed profanity inevitably involves verb types. As he notes, transitive verbs for sex---which can fit in the slot, 'Bill verbed Sue'--are "jocular or disrespectful at best and offensive at worst." But intransitive verbs---'Bill verbed with/to Sue'---such as 'made love with, 'slept with,' 'went to bed with' and many others--convey a mutual activity. Words in the latter group lack a direct object, so there is no entity that is acted upon or made to change. They are semantically symmetrical, since if Bill slept with Sue then Sue also slept with Bill. But words of the 'Bill verbed Sue' variety imply that one active agent has exploited a direct object, gramatically speaking, or even damaged that object. That, too, we prefer not to think about casually; making verbs of the 'Bill verbed Sue' variety taboo goes some way toward achieving that since we are not routinely exposed to them.

We humans are conflicted about whether sex is a mutual, shared activity or something shameful (if you don't believe there is a hint of shame in sex as viewed by the most hook-up-happy teenager, refer to above discussion of public copulation). In the latter view, Pinker writes, 'sex is a forceful act, instigated by an active male and impinging on a passive female, exploiting or damaging her. . . . The second [model] is taboo," and its language is, too.

Of course, explaining why some words are taboo doesn't fully explain why they are more taboo than those Holocaust and battlefield scenes in Burns' documentary, at least in the eyes of the protesting affiliates. To account for that, you'd have to posit that something deep in our evolutionary history made casual and public mention of sex more threatening to society than did the most heinous acts of cruelty and violence. And, sad to say, as long as those acts were directed at outsiders rather than fellow tribesmen, that was probably the case.