Michael Adams: Professor of Profanity

Michael Adams portrait in library
Photo courtesy of Michael Adams.

Michael Adams, linguist and IU English professor, wrote the book on profanity—literally; his 2016 book is titled In Praise of Profanity— though he describes himself as more sarcastic than profane. Featured in the Summer 2018 issue of the Indiana University Alumni Magazine, Adams discusses the background of profanity, why people use it today, and what it will look like in our society moving forward. The following are excerpts of an interview produced by WFIU’s Profiles program, with interviewer Will Murphy.

Will Murphy: The book is In Praise of Profanity, but in the course of that, you have to talk about it against the field of vulgarity, obscenity, and other sorts of words that mix in with profanity. What’s your definition of the term profanity as you write in this book In Praise Of?

Michael Adams: I don’t really have one. As I say at one point in the book, I don’t think anybody really knows what they’re talking about, and I say that I use profanity because it’s the term people use for this type of language. It’s the term that people will recognize on the cover of a book. There are times at which we use words obscenely and then at other times, they have other meanings or other shades of meaning. Whether that counts as slang or profanity, words like the B-word, is that profanity or just slang now? Does it have to do with frequency of use? Does it have to do with a wide band of people who use it or the variety of situations in which they use it? This is stuff we can’t really tally up in a scientific way. In the book, I show that the one place you’d expect to find a clear definition of profanity, bless their hearts, the Oxford English Dictionary has definitions that are so involuted and wrap around in circles so much that you being to lose faith that anybody really knows what it is.

In Praise of Profanity book cover
Photo courtesy of Michael Adams.

W.M.: Is the question of context critical to the whole discussion of profanity?

M.A.: I think that at least the way we evaluate the badness of the profanity depends on context. I probably overuse the example in the book, but I always have in my mind somebody just trying to get through the day and the weather is awful, and the puddle is huge, and the strap of the bag breaks, everything just falls out of kilter. And what do you say? Normal words don’t give you a means of expressing your frustration in that case, and you let out this cry, which will be an expletive probably. But when you’re using it in that case, I think very few people evaluate that as bad profanity. Even if for lack of a better term, they call it profanity. That’s very different from using a word as a weapon to harm someone or mischaracterize them or to, if it’s possible nowadays, make something that could be beautiful vulgar instead. Those are all different types of maneuvers.

W.M.: Can you describe the euphemistic process of profanity?

M.A.: Sometimes as history goes its very way and causes us to forget things, we end up with genuine euphemisms. Jiminy Cricket, nobody thinks of that as a euphemism for a profanity, but if you assume because of your religious orientation that taking God’s name in vain is profanity and wrong to do, then you take JC and you make it into something. You cover it up. Right? Jiminy Cricket is originally a euphemism. Now that it’s gone through Disneyfication, nobody would ever suspect that. I don’t think anybody walking down the street thinks of that as a euphemism. But whenever those dashes or asterisks are in the word, on the printed page especially, there’s no way to read that except to say the profane word in your head. What I find paradoxical and a little amusing about a euphemism is that it’s there to keep profanity out of the discussion, and if it’s presented in certain ways, it forces a reader or a listener to utter a mental profanity, which is the opposite of what it’s supposed to be doing.

W.M.: How is profanity regulated?

M.A.: It strikes me as odd that we’re still very paternalistic about this in America, that there has to be an authority beyond the speaker who says what words are profane and impermissible and which ones are permissible in a setting like radio or network television. Meaning the FCC or the courts or the legislators or anybody who is willing to take the authority for taking those speech decisions away from the people who are actually speaking and who I think, as users of language, are perfectly competent to decide both what to say and what to listen to.

W.M.: We’ve talked about context in profanity, but another factor is moral judgement. How is that a factor?

M.A.: What I like to say now is that profanity is especially risky language. We used to think of it as taboo, but people use it so much that it can’t possibly, really be taboo anymore. But it still has its edge or its power, and that’s because it still carries social risk with it. It wouldn’t be powerful, as you say, unless we look down on it or acknowledged its power as sort of special, risky language. The case really is that’s lots of people in all classes have always swore to some extent. There have been aristocrats who swore much more than poor people who wanted to live in decent homes. Then, of course, vice versa is also true. There’s a sort of middle class sensibility, and it’s expressed by authors like Kingsley Amis directly. He has a book of grammar and usage called The King’s English, and he says, “If you’re going to use profanity, you have to know how to use it well. You have to know how to use it correctly,” and that ends up being a class thing. It has to do with restraint, but it’s okay for middle class people to swear. It’s just that they just know how to do it in the right way. It’s as though people of a certain stature have a license to swear. It signifies differently for them than it does people who are down and out, but who decided that was going to be the case? I think that’s what really an issue is whether people of a certain class are willing to listen to profanity from the mouths of people less fortunate than themselves and hear what that expresses, understand what that really means.

W.M.: Talk a little bit about your upbringing, about your household’s view on profanity, and how you came to this topic. Why it was of interest to you?

M.A.: My dad was a big swearer. He was also an actor and a trumpet player and a professor of English who insisted on a standard of English in the house that was oppressive. You’d get corrected at the dinner table about using whom incorrectly. I didn’t realize that people could form the subjunctive by saying, “If I went to the store.” I always had to say, “Were I going to the store,” and so after a while, you realize people don’t really talk like that, and you’ve made yourself an exception socially, and it can be very uncomfortable, especially for the elementary school-age boys, which I was. We had that exception about proper speech, but there was one person who transcended rules about profanity, and that was my father. My father could swear as much as he wanted to, and he did. He set a very bad example, and he just told us to do what he said, not what he did.

W.M.: How did that affect your own use of profanity?

M.A.: I didn’t use profanity myself. All the other kids did. I spent decades judging other people on the basis of profanity adversely to their interest. That was not, I think, the kindest part of my life. I say in the book that I had a strategy for saying what I needed to say, for lashing out, or for expressing myself at the limit of expression, and that was sarcasm. I became a very sarcastic speaker. I’m still very sarcastic, but maybe not so ruthlessly sarcastic as I was as a boy, and a teenager, and into my college years.

W.M.: Academically, why this topic?

M.A.: I happened to come across an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that used some very innovative language, the collection of which, the repertoire of which I called slayer slang, and I wrote about that. I called it that because the alliteration just appealed to me. Slayer slang, I thought, well, if it’s a thing, then I ought to write about it, and I did. That was when I started really thinking about the way slang is formed, and the social purposes to which it’s put, and that sort of thing. It just gradually led me to profanity. It was the next sort of vocabulary I had to look into because I exhausted slang, though not quite jargon at this point.

W.M.: How can you explain slang versus profanity?

M.A.: That gets back to the question how you get to profanity. Well, profanity’s interesting because it’s different from slang. In slang, we often come up with new forms on the fly for an ephemeral purpose, and maybe some of them will stick, maybe some of them will disappear within a month, or maybe even within a week, or maybe even within a conversation among friends. We’re endlessly inventive in that register of language, but profanity, if we’re going to be creative with it, it’s more complicated because there are only ten profane words. There are only ten items. I’m making that exact number up, but it’s a very restricted vocabulary. We don’t want to have 5,000 profane words. We want to know when we’re confronting profanity. When people use slang, they’re outlining in-groups and out-groups, so it’s natural that people in the out-group don’t know what people in the in-group are talking about. But when we use profanity, anybody who hears it has to recognize it for what it is. It’s one way of distinguishing between profanity and slang legitimately, I think. We may figure out ways of using profanity in a slangy way, but it’s very hard to use slang in a profane way, because that space in the lexicon is reserved for actual profane words.

W.M.: So over time as a linguistic phenomenon is profanity much slower in its evolution?

M.A.: I raise the possibility in the book that we could just overuse profanity so much, the taboo could slip so far that we just didn’t have profanity anymore, and that would be terrible because there’s no way to make up new profane words. If you lose your idea of profanity, then you can’t just construct new words to be profane. I think that, intuitively, speakers know that overuse of profanity would lead to diluting its expressive power, and no speaker wants to do that. I don’t think we have an easy way to measure it, but Timothy Jay, who is a long-time scholar of profanity, he’s a psychologist, has estimated from decades of survey research that we speak profanity at a rate of about 0.5% of our daily verbal output. That’s on average across people. Some people swear more, and some people swear not at all for religious reasons or personal reasons, but that’s on the verge of statistical insignificance. That’s just another way of saying that below the level of consciousness probably we all know what we’re doing as speakers, and we use profanity just enough to get the business it does done and not any more.

W.M.: Has profanity lost any kind of power?

M.A.: No. I don’t think it has lost any kind of power. I know that my students are very likely to swear in certain situations, but they don’t swear when they’re in my office talking to me about the work we’re doing for the course. They can use swearing as a marker of intimacy in conversations with friends that excludes me or you or other people who aren’t authorized to use profanity with them, and then they’re not authorized to use profanity with you, so it becomes a linguistic aspect of that relationship. This is true of slang, too. As you get older, you take on more responsibilities, the registers in which you speak narrow. You become more official in your conduct then. Swearing is still useful to you, but it’s not as useful. Well, I shouldn’t say that because people who are working together are just as likely to use profanity to mark their relationships, their intimacies in the workplace.

W.M.: How has profanity acted as a way to bring people together?

M.A.: When I’m teaching about profanity in class, we almost always get to a point where people admit that hearing somebody else swear sends a little chill or tickle up their spines, that they have a type of almost prehistoric fear-flight reaction to it. There’s something very basic in hearing somebody else say a profane word that can be oddly pleasing. You sympathize with that other person. You understand what’s going on with them as a result of hearing the profanity, and you also feel some stress release yourself. Even though we’re not supposed to use profanity, that’s a good moment right there. Everybody is satisfied in that moment.

W.M.: How do you treat the topic with your own kids?

M.A.: My daughter has done something very revealing recently. It was a few weeks before she turned four, she turned to me after she was surprised by something and said, “What the heck.” We let her watch a show called My Little Pony, in which one of the ponies, Applejack, a Southern and very vernacular pony, when she’s surprised she says, “What the hay?” And it’s a pony joke. It’s very text-appropriate. My daughter has this model on the show, but I’m sure kids around her or adults are saying, “What the heck,” thinking that that’s sufficiently euphemistic. But what she said to me when she was surprised was, “Let me tell you something, Daddy. Sometimes I say, what the heck, and sometimes I just say, what the…” Here she is before four, and she already knows the grammar of profanity. This is all part of the story, and I’m not inclined to back off of what I said earlier. People speak the way they speak for a reason, and if I’m going to be that indulgent with people at large, I’m going to have to school myself to be that indulgent with my kids. That doesn’t mean I’ll say, “Sure, swear, do whatever you want all the time.” It just means that if I shut them off just because it’s profanity, I’m not really listening to what they’re saying.

To hear the full interview between Michael Adams and Will Murphy, which aired Jan. 22, 2017, visit indianapublicmedia.org.

Michael Adams was featured in the Summer 2018 issue of the Indiana University Alumni Magazine, a magazine for members of the IU Alumni Association. View current and past issues of the IUAM.

Written By
Nicole Montella
Nicole, BAJ’14, is a former content specialist with the IU Alumni Association.