One man's 'arse' is another man's 'ass': taboo words and profanities

Mar 3, 2013

Let's face it: profanities and taboo words are sometimes appropriate (and maybe even fun) to use. But does the same level of use apply to politicians or others constantly in the media spotlight?

On this week's edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller discusses the convention of taboo words and profanities in everyday language with Professor Anne Curzan, specifically in response to John Boehner's recent remarks about the Senate.

Quote from Boehner:

"We have moved the bill in the House twice. We should not have to move a third bill, before the Senate gets off their ass and begins to do something."

The word "ass" is usually not spoken in front of the public eye; it's taboo. Following Boehner's statement, however, this word is coming out of the woodwork, as Anne Curzan describes.

"...you could sense that people were interested in what Boehner said, but also in how he said it. They were interested in that word."

Is it more acceptable than other profanities used by past politicians?

"When Vice President Joe Biden, and Vice President Dick Cheney both dropped 'f-bombs' in fairly public places, everybody referred to it as the 'f-word.' Nobody wanted to say the word, because that's a taboo word that we don't say," explains Curzan.

But why is "ass" more acceptable than, say the "f-bomb?" Anne Curzan clears this up.

"The word that Boehner used shows up in the 19th Century, and most dictionaries call it 'vulgar slang'. It's an adaptation from 'arse,' which goes all the way back to Old English, and which most people see as not a taboo word. And interestingly, the word 'ass' when it refers to an animal, not taboo at all."

"To me, it speaks to the power of language that we have these words that are so powerful that we worry about whether we say them, we worry about whether other people are saying them. Dictionaries are in this difficult position of 'how do we label these to show that they're vulgar or offensive?' so that people know that these words are loaded," said Curzan

However, despite the historical context, or the taboo nature of these words some of us really like to use profanities when they're called for. But how does one draw the line of when it is and isn't okay to use a profanity?

"It's important to realize that taboo language actually does some really important work," says Curzan. "It expresses anger, it also can be incredibly funny. It has the power to offend, it also has the power to express a kind of closeness. And interestingly, it allows us to alleviate pain; studies show that we can endure more pain if we're allowed to curse," Curzan said.

Moral of the story? Curse if you want to; it expresses anger and emotion when used in the right context.