Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Religious Obscenities?

Esther Inglis-Arkell explores the origin and transformation of certain four letter words:
Golly! Zounds! Gadzooks! These are the kind of things Captain Marvel would say. Almost any other superhero would be too mature for such, childish silly words. And yet, during Shakespeare's time, they made him one of the more edgy writers out there. They're not just random sounds, but contractions, meant to make absolutely shocking sentiments less outright obscene. Golly, zounds, and gadzooks were, in order, god's body, god's wounds, and god's hocks. While thinking about the Almighty's ham hock region might offend a few people, each of these words are the kind of things now deemed perfectly innocent. This shows a huge shift in social mores since the time of the Shakespeare... 
Ironically, the reason they got a toe hold in current society is the same reason they were so scandalous a few centuries ago. They could be genuine swear words, but they could also be expressions of religious ideas. Far, far back in Simpsons history, there was a storyline about how the kids got a lesson on hell in Sunday School. When asked, afterwards, about what they learned, Bart replied, "Hell." When Marge scolded him, he told her that, no, they had learned about the literal hell, and kept saying hell over and over until Marge, tired of hearing a word she considered inappropriate when coming out of her son's mouth, said, "Bart, you're not in church anymore. Don't swear." The line between actual devotion and blasphemy is tougher to delineate than most censors, and most people, imagine. Eventually most English speakers just stopped trying to find it at all, and people saying things like, "Mother of God," just became a noncontroversial emotional outburst.

Obviously the rest of the article contains quite a few other four letter words. I've been trying to think of Hebrew/Rabbinic swear words that have followed a similar path - from outrageous to socially acceptable. There are quite a few common army slang words, that are fairly disgusting if you understand them, but are commonly used (and seldom understood). I couldn't think of a similar term from Chazal.

Any ideas?

H/T Andrew Sullivan

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