In “The R-Rated Blog Post” I explored what it is we really mean by the words we say, especially expletives and innuendo, in hopes of finding ways to translate those words from one culture or language to another. This time I want to explore what others have to say about these same issues.
When I searched “latin swearing” on metacrawler I found many sites supposedly teaching one how to curse in Latin, including a youtube video. Amidst these was also an article on avoiding profanity in Latin (which I sadly couldn’t access).
Barry Baldwin, Classics Professor at the University of Calgary, published the essay Classical Swearing in 2006, in which he describes many ancient vulgarities, their modern counterparts, and the development of swearing throughout history. He makes an interesting point about blasphemy, saying that “the great advantage of polytheism is that it gives you a generous choice of gods to invoke” and includes social strata for who curses with what God. Men would swear to Hercules, while women swore to Castor. While reading through the winding journey of what society considers vulgar and what it doesn’t, I wonder at the twin facts that language is incredibly diverse and that humanity has hardly changed.
Baldwin quotes the adage “censorship is the mother of linguistic invention.” Censorship has indeed contributed to the diversity of profane language. As words become taboo we find new ways to express the same ideas (since we always have had and always will have need of blasphemy, strong exclamations and ways to talk about sex). These inventions produce euphemisms, like “kick the bucket,” “pushing up daisies,” “gone to meet the Lord,” and “six feet under.” They produce a multiplicity of synonyms which not only meet the need of expressing the idea, but offer a variety of images which can impart particular reactions in the audience.
Inciting a reaction from the audience seems to be one of the primary purposes of expletives. When calling down a curse upon something, you could say G**damn, which would certainly incite reaction if you proclaimed it in, say, a church, but possibly the wrong reaction. Instead, depending on the circumstances, you can say goshdarnit, dagnabbit, doggonit, or simply drat.
Translators take advantage of the creativity inherent in swearing. The unchanging nature of humanity is what makes translation work. We may never understand exactly what another culture meant by the specific words they used, but their intent behind the words is still keenly felt in our day and age. By tapping into that intent we find ever more inventive ways to express the passions, lusts, longings, and frustrations we all feel and endeavor to express.
Perhaps that’s what lies at the core of swearing: a need to express the human condition.
Perhaps the deepest emotions can only be expressed by the strongest words.
Perhaps the messiness of humanity requires words that push us out of our comfort zones, forcing us to sit up and take notice of both the world’s brokenness and greatest joys.