Culture and Profanity

Culture is the main system that defines what category an individual fits in. A culture can consist of education, media, music, art, morals/religion, and most importantly, language. One part of language that culture has a large impact on his profanity. Profanity/curse words are a subset of language that is considered strong, obscene, and overall dirty. However, these words can still be apart of ones common diction, and are “okay to use” under certain circumstances. Permission to use profanity comes from culture because culture defines what profanity is. Since every culture has diverse definitions of what is social norm and what isn’t, certain behaviors and language that are natural for one culture are deemed blasphemous and obscene for another.

The way in which profanity is depicted in the media depends on an innumerous amount of variables and complications. For essentially every circumstance, however, culture has the main influence on the laws that dictate what language is “too obscene,” or what is perfectly fine to say publicly. When such boundaries are crossed, censorship is used. Censorship in the United States has liberalized over the years, and censorship in the United Kingdom is also rather lax with its linguistic risks.  Take into account two different versions of the same television show that is common amongst the teenage population of both the United States and the United Kingdom; Skins. Both Skins UK and Skins US are known for their impulsive and radical usage of obscenity and foul language. In Skins UK, Effy uses terms like “shagging” and “surf and turf” (SE3E01: “Everyone”)  to describe sex, and when Freddie confesses to Effy that he’s in love with her, he blatantly says “I really fucking love you.” (SE4E05: “Freddie”)  In Skins US, when Tony was making phone calls to people about Stanley, he says that he “Has to get laid by the time he’s 17, or he can’t be my friend anymore.” (SE1E01: “Tony”)  Even with the slight lenience of censorship, it caused far more controversy and lead to the show going off air after the first season. Reasons why Skins US got far more negative attention was because it publicly presented things too obscene for American media. American culture contrasts from the United Kingdom’s culture because the UK is open to accepting what’s considered improprietous language as a social norm, as well as a natural human behavior. Because the UK’s definition of profanity is less stringent, it gives permission to freely use what’s defined as profane in the US.

With a majority of religions, there is a wide range of mandatory edicts strictly against vulgar language.  In Catholicism, there are a specific amount of rules that must be followed by every Roman Catholic entitled The Ten Commandments. In the Ten Commandments according to the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, there are two particular commandments that specify  the wrongdoings of using foul language and other swear words. Two of them would be the second commandment, “Thou shalt not use misuse the name of the Lord your God in vain,” (New American Bible, Exodus 20:7) and the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” (New American Bible, Exodus 20:14)  Using God’s name in vain is considered a form of swearing as well as blasphemy. With the sixth commandment, committing adultery can be defined/interpreted as any sort of act that is sexual or impure towards your body. Cursing/swearing fits into this criteria, because it is thought of to be degrading and harmful towards one’s self. What is fascinating about these two commandments especially, though, are that they state two natural human behaviors as being vulgar and degrading, and a majority of curse words are essentially just language that describes these natural human behaviors. Though because the culture of Catholicism does not give permission to use such words, they have become profane, because culture defines the line between vulgarity and normality.

In just about any and every educational environment, the concept of obscenity is either completely avoided, or deemed as subject too inappropriate to approach with any depth. This is because of ethics that are established in the culture of learning. Though recently, the comfort level with profanity has been increasing especially in educational environments. In a New York Times article about educated people using foul language in America, it states that “In our society, the main taboo is no longer sex, but race.” (“Room for Debate”) And also talks about how our offense evolves throughout the time. It also states that, after a certain amount of time, “people clutching at their pearls at things like that will look as quaint as people considering it a big deal that Clark Gable said ‘damn’ in ‘Gone With the Wind.’” (“Room for Debate”) Because of the fact that Americans are no longer offended by impropriety, they have now moved on to hyperbolizing the insult of using a racial slurs. The definition of profanity is constantly revising and evolving based on what a culture is offended by, and because of the recent epidemic of sexual exploitation, there is no more controversy or shock towards it, and it has become so natural that such words can be comfortably used by educated people. Now, ethnophaulisms are the new definition of profanity, and any permission to use that profanity will come from the culture that has defined it.

Permission to use profanity comes from culture because culture defines what profanity is.  Since every culture has diverse definitions of what is social norm and what isn’t, certain behaviors and language that are natural for one culture are deemed blasphemous and obscene for another. Culture is what dictates ethical and unethical behavior, regardless of its normality or naturality elsewhere. The boundary between ethical and obscene accentuates the line between right and wrong, and carries out the importance of doing and saying the right things.

Works Cited:

"Everyone." Skins UK. E4: 22 Jan 2009. Television.

“Freddie.” Skins UK. E4: 24 Feb 2010. Television.

“Tony” Skins US. MTV 17 Jan 2010. Television.

The New American Bible.

"Why Do Educated People Use Bad Words?" Room for Debate Why Do Educated People Use Bad Words Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2013. <>.