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Blue Streak: Swearing, Free Speech and Sexual Harassment

Naughty Words

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


Blue Streak: Swearing, Language

Blue Streak: Swearing, Free Speech and Sexual Harassment

Are words bad because of some intrinsic naughty quality, or due to the moral significance some people choose to attach to them? The answer to this tells us a lot about not only ourselves, but also how we are to deal with our own language. Dooling explains how words are imbued with strong emotional significance and, because of that, are viewed as being "bad" and are "banned" from polite society.


Title: Blue Streak: Swearing, Free Speech and Sexual Harassment
Author: Richard Dooling
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 0517193698


Book Review

Dooling's attention to English swear words is of particular interest because they have not been sufficiently dealt with in other works where they should have been: dictionaries. This has actually resulted in a great loss, since we are consequently now unaware of the true origin and development of the English word “fuck.” We have some ideas, but in fact there is a tremendous amount we don’t know.

Dooling quotes the dictionary writers and editors who have specifically left that and other words out of their works — apparently, some words are just too naughty to inform the public about. Fuck is one of the oldest swear words in English, and its longevity is something of a mystery — many other swear words have disappeared — they would be completely unknown if we had to rely completely upon official dictionaries.

Dooling quotes ideas about their longevity and origin, but it mostly remains speculation. It would be good if we knew more about this word, but the censors have been victorious in this case. Nothing does quite so good a job of hindering the proliferation of ideas as pretending that the key words involved don’t actually exist.

The differences between men and women in the issue of swearing were especially enlightening. Evidently, swear words don’t originate in the normal language centers of the brain. For this reason, people with severe brain injuries and have lost the ability to speak nevertheless are capable of swearing in detail and with creativity. Swearing comes from primitive emotional centers of the brain rather than from the regions responsible for actual language.

Blue Streak: Swearing, Language

Blue Streak: Swearing, Free Speech and Sexual Harassment

It thus appears that when confronted with situations which raise strong emotions, men will swear while women are more likely to exhibit other reactions originating from the same emotional region of the brain. As Dooling explains, legal implications of this become interesting. Since swearing is a predominantly male activity, then prohibitions against swearing fall predominantly upon men.

Richard Dooling covers quite a lot of ground in his book, much more than can be represented here. Psychology, linguistics, free speech, sexual harassment, political correctness, history and more get his attention, and they are drawn together in unexpected ways. I enjoyed reading it, and can readily recommend it to anyone whose interests lie in the above areas, or who eclectic tastes like I do.

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