Curse words were originally the words that one was never supposed to say in polite society; they were reserved for use only when one was extremely upset, if even then. Today though, curse words have become incredibly common in the common everyday speech of many young adults. And this raises the question: have curse words become so common that they have lost their shock value? This sample essay provided by the professional writers at Ultius will answer this question with a yes.
The essay will begin with a theoretical consideration regarding the way in which a word—any word—can lose its meaning over time. Then, the essay will proceed to discuss the state of cursing in these times, and how it has become far more common than it ever was in the past. After this, the essay will directly address the issue of shock value, and conclude that the commonness of cursing these days has in fact detracted from the shock value of curse words. Finally, the essay will reflect on the significance of this development and essentially conclude that there is really nothing to worry about.
Devaluation of curse words
To start with, it is worth considering the fact that a strange thing tends to happen to a word—any word—if it is overused or repeated over and over again. This is a phenomenon known as semantic satiation, and it has been described in The American Journal of Psychology (qtd. in Petit) in the following way:
“If a printed word is looked at steadily for some little time, it will be found to take on a curiously strange and foreign aspect. This loss of familiarity in its appearance sometimes makes it look like a word in another language . . . and occasionally reaches the extreme where letters themselves look like meaningless marks on the paper” (paragraph 3).
The same can be said, of course, for spoken words: when the same word is spoken too often with a given context, it tends to lose meaning and degenerate into a mere sound. This is a common way for words to lose meaning.
Semantic satiation is largely seen in the English language with the overuse of the word “literally.” The word was meant to make a state an occurrence in an absolutely factual manner. Today the word is used more as a simple adjective that often lends itself to great exaggeration as pointed out in a great article from John Sutherland of The Guardian.
Another example, one could try saying the word “duck” to oneself over and over again—say, a dozen or twenty times. At first, one will of course know that the word refers to a bird that tends to live near water. As the repetitions continue, however, one may become curious at oneself and fail to recognize the meaning of the sound that one is producing; the effect can emotionally range from the comical to the eerie. And this would be another form of semantic satiation.
Essentially, the repetition causes the word to degenerate into what it originally in fact was: just a mere sound, with no associated meaning or content. This probably points toward the contextual nature of semantics and even language: language is a system of words that together produce meaning (see Wittgenstein). if one word is overburdened, then it tends to lose the meaning it is supposed to have.
With curse words, the point could be made that they most definitely do lose meaning when they completely litter pretty much every sentence a person speaks. For example, if a person uses the curse word that rhymes with duck (say) twice in every sentence, then the listener would likely begin filtering it out, and it would begin to seem like a mere noise that the speaker is making, and not as an expression of actual emotion or even meaning. Likewise, when curse words are used in such a way, they also lose all shock value. And this can be explained at least in part by the concept of semantic satiation. Repetition in general is not good for the meaning of a word; this is true of any word; therefore, it is also true of curse words.
Curse words over Time
The meanings of curse words have not remained consistent over time. Matthew Malady of Slate has somewhat humorously written:
“Curse words, obscenities, and other taboo utterances—much like the individuals who resort to them in fits of rage—tend to not be known for their stability. They change, fluctuate, shape-shift. Sometimes they disappear on us altogether, never to heard from again. Or almost never”.
This is due to the simple fact that many curse words are culturally and historically relative. They are grounded in what a given culture or society finds to be taboo or unmentionable, and as those norms change over time, so do the meanings of curse words or even the curse words themselves. The suggestion that curse words today do not mean what they once did would thus be a simple truism. The more interesting question, though, is whether curse words have in general lost all meaning and shock value altogether—in which case it would hardly seem that they are still even curse words at all.
A shift in swears
Swearing used to be considered a pretty major act, in previous eras of history. As Alexa Redick of The Odyssey writes:
“In the 18th and 19th centuries, swearing was considered to be taboo, and mostly used by the lower middle class and the poor. If you swore, you were considered untouchable in a sense, therefore the middle class kept quiet about their poor choice of words” (paragraph 2).
The use of curse words thus had serious social implications within previous eras of culture: respectable people were to avoid them, if they wanted to continue being considered respectable by others. This is a good example of what it meant for a curse word to have shock value and meaning: it set off real social ripples whenever and wherever it occurred. Essentially, people paused to take note, because it was not really common, especially among the more sophisticated classes of society, to make use of curse words. People who chose to do so where seen as in a way setting themselves outside the boundaries of society. A respectable person would often resort to using a litote, rather than a curse word if they were offended or meant to direct offence.
A loss of shock value
It would seem that nothing could be further from the case in these times. Anyone who walks around an ordinary college campus could probably testify to as much. To quote Redick again:
“Walking around a college campus, every other word you hear in a conversation is a swear word. Even professors swear in their lectures occasionally. . . . The question is, when did the transition from shock value to air we breathe in curse words take place?” (paragraph 1).
In other words, it would seem quite clear that in these times, curse words most definitely do not have the shock value that they may have previously had a couple centuries or, even decades ago. Students tend to curse all the time, even in casual conversation, and even when there is no negative emotion, or dysphemism involved. Indeed, cursing seems to often happen especially with friends, and especially when they are having a good time; and if professors curse on occasion, it could well be because they feel that this might make them more connected with their students. This was most definitely not the function of curse words in the past, and it does reflect a real loss in the shock value of curse words.
Jen Doll of The Atlantic notes that, today when a person who is widely known not to curse does finally use a curse word, it does tend to shock the listener. This would seem to strongly suggest that the potency of a curse word is inversely related to the frequency of its use. That is, if a person consciously reserves curse words for situations in which he is genuinely upset, then when he uses the word, then this will likely shock the listener and give them a good indication of his state of mind.
On the other hand, if a person uses a curse word repeatedly even in casual conversation, then the word begins to lose its meaning and become more or less just a form of emphasis or even a sound; at any rate, it does not evoke a reaction anywhere near as serious as it might have in a different place and time.
An example of this can be seen in the area of music. Tristian Hopper of The National Post, makes a good point that;
“popular music, once a no-go zone for the slightest whiff of profanity—particularly on the radio—has become so open to colorful language that four-letter words now grace band names” (paragraph 8).
This reflects an integration of curse words into popular culture in general, which is the opposite of those words actually maintaining shock value. Indeed, it would seem that by now, people also use curse words as a status signifier of being “cool,” as opposed to intending the words to convey any kind of exceptional emotional distress. Likewise, much the opposite of producing shock, the words are meant to produce comfort: they are intended as a sign that one is among others who are on the same frequency of cool, as it were. This is a radical transformation in the basic significance and meaning of curse words, to the point that they almost cannot even be properly called curse words anymore. Rather, the way that they actually function, they are more like cultural passcodes than anything else.
Significance of swearing
Some people insist that curse words ought to maintain their previous shock value and significance, and the devaluation of curse words is thus something lamentable. Such complaints, however, may not only be misguided but also even misunderstand the mutable nature of language itself. The truth of the matter is, words do not have any intrinsic meanings, in and of themselves; rather, they only have the meanings that peoples and cultures choose to assign to them.
In this context, the fact that curse words have lost their shock value simply reflects a shift in the nature of culture, just as similar changes in other words may also reflect the same. There is nothing intrinsically problematic about this state of affairs. Rather, it is simply how languages and cultures tend to change and evolve over time. It would be absurd to assign any kind of intrinsic moral value to this phenomenon, one way or the other. As Michael Gonchar of The New York Times writes,
Curse words used to be reserved for private conversations or stubbed toes, but over the past few decades they seem to have solidly found their way into popular culture — into hit songs and television shows, even book titles and company names.
It is clear that within some cultural milieus, curse words still maintain their significance, whereas within other milieus they do not. The very phrase “cursing like a sailor” itself indicates that even across history, some classes or subcultures placed far less significance on the meanings of curse words than other classes or subcultures.
What is somewhat unique about the present time is that the mainstream culture itself is relatively unconcerned about the significance of curse words. This has resulted in a generalized drop in the shock value of curse words. And again, there is nothing wrong with this. After all, if one really wanted to shock people, there are still plenty of ways to do so. One would simply need to get more creative about the matter.
Conclusion to curse words in their devaluation
In summary, this sample argumentative essay from Ultius has consisted of a discussion of the devaluation of curse words in these times. The essay has unequivocally concluded that curse words have in fact lost their meanings and shock value in today’s culture and society. However, the essay has also strongly suggested that this is a rather natural phenomenon, and that it is really nothing for people to worry about in a serious way. Words have always shifted in their meanings, and curse words have always meant different things to different classes and subcultures within society. The generalized acceptance of curse words by mainstream culture today may be a somewhat unique phenomenon, but it is still not more problematic than anything else.
Doll, Jen. “Say It with Feeling: Have Curse Words Lost All Meaning?” The Atlantic. 29 Jun. 2012. Web. 9 Sep. 2016.
Gonchar, Michael. “Have Curse Words Become So Common They Have Lost Their Shock Value?.” New York Times. Web. 1. Feb. 2013.
Hopper, Tristin. “Are Swears Becoming So Common They Aren’t Even Profanity Anymore? F— That!” National Post. 11 Apr. 2014. Web. 9 Sep. 2016.
Malady, Matthew J. X. “No Offense.” Slate. 1 Jul. 2013. Web. 9 Sep. 2016.
Petit, Zachary. “Why Does a Word Sometimes Lose All Meaning?” Mental Floss. n.d. Web. 9 Sep. 2016.
Redick, Alexa. “Curse Words: Have They Lost Their Shock Value?” Odyssey. 21 Oct. 2014. Web. 9 Sep. 2016.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. New York: Pearson, 1973. Print.
Sutherland, John. “How language is literally losing it’s meaning” Guardian. The Guardian. Web. 14. Aug. 2013.
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