The New York Times recently had a symposium headlined “Why Do Educated People Use Bad Words?” For the most part it’s fairly predictable thumbsucking on the part of a bunch of intelligent people (John McWhorter, Deborah Tannen, Tony McEnery, Lee Siegel, Ilya Somin, and Timothy Jay) who don’t really have anything interesting to say about the topic (“swear words are linked to emotion in a visceral way”—well, duh), but McEnery, who wrote the classic Swearing in English: Bad Language, Purity and Power from 1586 to the Present, has a nice summary of some of his findings:
Purity of speech has been associated for so long with power in public life in the English speaking world that it is almost inconceivable that it could ever have been different. Yet it was — a powerful example of this comes from James I’s participation in an ecclesiastical debate in the early 17th century. When he said that he did not give a “turd” for the argument of a leading cleric, James did not attract opprobrium. He attracted praise — those present were impressed by his debating skills, not appalled at his choice of words. This is unimaginable now. How did the change come about?
Starting in the late 17th century a movement swept the English speaking world which firmly linked purity of speech with power. Groups like the Society for the Reformation of Manners in the British Isles and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts in the colonies began to fight against sin in all of its forms by preaching and prosecution. A main target for them was bad language….
The hypocrisy of public purity but private impurity also has deep roots. Eighteenth-century campaigners gave up on any attempt to regulate behavior in the private sphere, quickly accepting that people could use whatever language they wished in private as long as their public speech was pure. It is to such campaigners that we can ascribe examples such as Richard Nixon, who simultaneously managed to crusade for an improvement in public morals while revealing himself on the White House tapes to have a full command of bad language.
The campaigns of the late 17th and early 18th century that linked bad language with moral degeneracy, low education and general brutishness were incredibly successful in forming views of bad language that endure in the English language to this day. They were also successful at establishing the nascent middle classes of the English speaking world as a locus of purity and hence a locus of power….
(I stole from McEnery shamelessly in the introduction to the English section of my own curses book.)