Profanity as Weltanschauung.

Mark Edmundson has a piece in the LARB that is well worth reading if you enjoy evocations of what it’s like to be a kid (and, of course, profanity). Here’s a taste:

Tanzio and I were Jesuits of profanity. We acquired new words steadily; we evaluated them according to their level of intensity and seriousness; we deployed them with and at each other. As time passed and I got to know more kids, the discourse on bad words unfolded further. When I was nine, I was often to be found sitting on the brick wall constructed by Tony’s grandpa, in company with a half dozen other kids theorizing about what might be the worst swear you could create. I think the prize went to terms that blended the super-sacred with the rankly vulgar: so that if you were in the mood to purchase a one-way to hell you might say something about a certain sort of act with the Virgin Mary.

[…]

Our parents would have been blown down flat like sailors in a typhoon if they heard us cursing. They would probably have been less shocked if we had run out of the local variety store with a fistful of cash swiped from the till, or made an inept try at setting fire to a parked car. They probably wouldn’t have been impressed by our theological disputes; and they would not have been in love with the way we denounced our teachers; but they would have burst into rage if they had heard us swear.

Things are probably different now, but that’s definitely how it was when I was a wee tyke. I’m afraid that towards the end Edmundson wanders off into standard thumb-sucking pseudo-profundity (“the movement toward the omnipresent profane is a move away from hope”), but up to that point it’s a delightful read. Thanks, Paul!

Comments

  1. so that if you were in the mood to purchase a one-way to hell you might say something about a certain sort of act with the Virgin Mary
    Come to think of it, even though I’m Catholic and I swear A LOT, I’ve never used this particular type of profanity. I wonder why. It can’t be the Calvinist part of me, because that one is Hungarian and there references to certain acts with all types of religious figures abound.

    the movement toward the omnipresent profane is a move away from hope.
    Faux-deep and wrong, too. Profanity is the ultimate language of those who still hang on to hope. When profanity is replaced by silent resignation, that’s when you’re in trouble.

  2. Yes, exactly!

  3. Dum exsecror, spero.

  4. – because that one is Hungarian

    that was the first phrase I learned in Hungarian 😉

    “Baszom az anyat, baszom az istenet, baszom a Krizstus Marjat, baszom az atyadot, baszom a vilagot!” (c) “The Good Soldier Švejk”

  5. In my copy of Švejk (a new edition of the classic Polish translation by Hulka-Laskowski, 1931) translations of all German and Hungarian phrases used by Hašek are provided in footnotes. All except this one, which is glossed “Ordynarne przekleństwo (węg.)” (“Vulgar profanity (Hung.)”).

  6. One is tempted to render “Ordynarne przekleństwo” as “ornery profanity.”

  7. GT gets confused with that one, sometimes recognizing baszom as a profanity, sometimes taking it for an inflected form of baszk ‘Basque’.

  8. Basque must be as naughtily funny in Hungarian as Abba Eban is in Russian.

  9. “What does it mean, ‘one man one vote’?”

    “Why, it means, ‘one bloody man, one bloody vote’, see?”

  10. Once again I’m reminded of misreading of Wittgenstein: taking “schweigen” to be cognate with swearing.

    I like that better.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    I like that better.

    Heh. So do I. 🙂

    (The actual cognate is schwören, schwor, geschworen “swear an oath”.)

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