“This is fucking brilliant!” Bono exclaimed, accepting a Golden Globe Award on live television and uttering — in the eyes of a substantial (and vocal) segment of the American public — an obscenity. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), charged with policing “indecency” on the public airwaves (including live broadcasts like the Golden Globe ceremony), was less sure. The commission’s enforcement bureau ruled, in October 2003, that Bono had used “fucking” as an adverb, modifying and intensifying “brilliant”, rather than as a verb describing sexual activity, and thus, by the FCC’s standards, what he said on television was not indecent. “This is fucking brilliant,” the enforcement bureau held, is different than “This is brilliant, but I’d rather be home fucking my lover.”
American cultural conservatives, and others committed to the idea that profanity and obscenity are absolute qualities that attach to certain words however they are used, rapidly and predictably lost their… composure. A storm of outraged, disbelieving criticism followed, and five months later — perhaps as a result — the commissioners of the FCC overruled their own enforcement bureau and reversed the original decision. “Fucking”, the commissioners declared, was an indecent word by definition, and banned from the airwaves regardless of the speaker’s intent or the context in which it appeared.
Michael Adams’ In Praise of Profanity will delight those who savor the FCC enforcement bureau’s parsing of the subtleties of “fucking”, and appall those for whom such parsing is an abuse of logic and a sin against common sense. Ranging across linguistics, psychology, sociology, history, and literary criticism (among other fields), he sets out to explain how profanity works — not just how it functions within the larger context of language, but the social roles it plays: “to illustrate … how expressive language participates in the human comedy and the human tragedy, and most often the human tragicomedy.”
Adams pursues this goal through four lengthy, substantial chapters. The first walks the reader through past and present linguistic debates over profanity — shredding, in the process, any notion that profanity is simple, easily defined, or self-evident. The second explores profanity’s role in delineating social boundaries. Used among groups of friends, it establishes a sense of social intimacy and strengthens the bonds that bind the members of the group to one another; used with strangers, it establishes the user as a transgressive, outsider figure unconstrained by social taboos.
The third chapter yokes together two seemingly unrelated subjects — profane interjections and euphemisms designed to take the place of profanity — while showing that both touch the central question of what makes a word profane. The fourth considers profanity in art, ranging from Seneca the Younger to The Sopranos by way of, among many others, the 17th-century Earl of Rochester (as noted for his libertinism as his poetry) and singer Liz Phair. A brief-but-pungent “Coda” concludes the book, offering up Adams’ candidate for the “ultimate” (by which he means “most linguistically elegant”) English profanity: clusterfuck.
Each of the four main chapters digs deeply into its subject, and each acknowledges previous academic work on the subject at hand. The works that Adams relies on are further discussed in four- to five-page sections of small type — headed “References”, but dense mini-essays on sources rather than formally structured lists of notes — that follow each chapter, allowing interested readers to dig deeper still. The result is a book that is academic in its depth, rigor, and scrupulous regard for the ongoing scholarly conversation in its field(s), but not in its presentation. Adams’ approach to the subject is serious without being stultifying, and relentlessly logical without the aridity that — in the hands of a less-gifted writer and thinker — such an approach can easily produce.
In Praise of Profanity’s strengths, visible throughout the book, are particularly apparent in the discussion of euphemism. Why, Adams reasonably asks, is fuck profane while feck, fark, frig, frak and f*** — all of which instantly and unambiguously call forth the forbidden from the mind of anyone who knows it — are considered polite? The answer, to which he leads readers by a crisply explained series of steps, is that they are polite because society has tacitly agreed that they are. The same shared consent renders jeez! an interjection acceptable to those for whom Jesus!, for which it is a transparent substitute, would be offensive. Euphemisms like these exist because even those who disdain profanity need exclamations that do the essential work of releasing pent-up frustration, anger, and aggression.
If the social status of f*** is a matter of convention, it follows that the status of fuck is as well, and that is precisely Adams’s larger point: context is everything, and context is richly varied and constantly shifting. To decree (as the FCC commissioners did) that certain words are always and immutably profane, or to insist (as self-proclaimed guardians of “decency” often do) that profane language is impoverished and lacking in imagination, is to deny the richness and complexity of language’s interplay with society and culture.
All this is rendered in prose that confidently walks the line between rigorous and relaxed, allowing Adams to be casual without compromising his voice of authority and to indulge in humor without ever sounding jokey. The Coda, for example, opens this way: “On May 27, 2015, I attended a banquet at Pembroke College, the University of Oxford. This setting is important, because I am about to tell a story of after-dinner conversation about profanity, and one doesn’t often hear Pembroke College and clusterfuck in the same sentence.”
Elsewhere, his discussion of feces-flinging by chimpanzees in zoos — their throwing of shit, he argues, is behaviorally equivalent to our exclaiming “Shit!” in moments of extreme frustration — it is (against all odds) poignant and chimp-centric. “If I were a chimpanzee in a zoo,” he writes, “even if I more or less liked my keepers, I’d be royally pissed off and inclined to take it out on people who are, after all, not chimpanzees, and don’t deserve a chimpanzee’s dignity.” The subtlety in that sentence — the final clause is not a human slamming other humans, but a human seeing the world from a chimp’s point of view — is evident on virtually every page of the book. It is, as a result, a continual delight to read.
Adams sets himself a staggeringly ambitious task in In Praise of Profanity, and tackles it in prose that mixes crystalline clarity, deep insight, and an admirable lightness of touch. The 250-odd pages in which he does so are, as Bono might have said, fucking brilliant.