“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”
Liz: You can’t just take away all these words we’ve been using for the past six years.
Kenneth: Oh, that reminds me. You can’t say “using” on TV. It implies drug use.
—30 Rock Season 6, Episode 11
On 15 December, 1939, Gone with the Wind premiered at Loew’s Grand Theatre in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. The occasion remains an important one in cinematic history not only because of the film’s unprecedented critical and popular reception (it won 10 Academy Awards and remains the highest grossing film ever, adjusting for inflation), but also because of Clark Gable’s iconic line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” That inclusion of that line helped deal a critical blow to the nascent Hollywood production code (popularly known as the Hays Code), which had banned the use of a wide variety of words from American movies just five years earlier.
We’ve come a long way since then. The scope of what is considered permissible to say in a film or on television has expanded exponentially, often to the chagrin of social commentators. Generally speaking, it is these high-profile transgressions of rules about offensive speech that people tend to remember, and so it’s easy to imagine that the number of offensive words in English is always dwindling as one barrier after another gets knocked down.
“Not Pygmalion likely!”
Of course, things are never that simple. Offensive language is highly relative, depending not only on the personal tastes of speaker and listener (for example, the burgeoning consensus around the word moist—though personally, I’m not a big fan of burgeoning) but also on where and when the word is being said. The intensifier bloody, for instance, which has never really rankled Americans much, caused something of a scandal the first time it was uttered on a London stage in 1914 during the British premiere of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. In fact, the effect was startling enough that the title of the play itself began to be used as a humorous euphemism for bloody in phrases like “quite pygmalion useless!” and “not Pgymalion likely!”
The reason for the scandalousness, however, was also a matter of time. As Melissa Mohr, author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, has pointed out, since its first appearance in the 16th century through the turn of the 19th century, bloody was certainly an informal word but not a particularly shocking one. It was only with the advent of Victorian sensibilities in the early 1800s that bloody became increasingly censored and disparaged until, by the end of the century, it was all but unmentionable.
This kind of “vulgarizing” of previously inoffensive words is hardly confined to the quaint days of early Hollywood or Imperial Britain, however. Even in the recent past, new trends of “swear-formation” have taken off. Undoubtedly, the most obvious and powerful of these is the ban on nearly all informal terms for racial, ethnic, and religious identities, usually referred to (often with a healthy dose of irony) as “political correctness.” Though there are very good reasons for putting a high social penalty on using racially or religiously specific terms of abuse, what makes other words in this category “offensive” is often very difficult to pin down. As the particular set of prejudices and injustices associated with a word like Chinaman, for example, become more historical and less well known, it will be increasingly difficult to differentiate from inoffensive words like Frenchman and Spaniard. Nevertheless, in 2014, many if not most English-speakers would avoid using it to refer to a man from China.
Perhaps the real test for whether or not offensive language has shifted over time isn’t in the difference between a word’s literal meaning and its connotation (as with Chinaman), but in the difference between how we understand an inoffensive word today and how it was understood in the past. A number of apparently innocuous words and phrases have come into standard use in English, despite the fact that their original meanings, while not regarded as offensive in their day, do not really meet contemporary standards of cultural sensitivity.
For instance, the term basket case was originally used to refer to “a person, especially a soldier, who has lost all four of his limbs.” However, the callous and disrespectful nature of that original meaning eroded over time, so that basket case eventually came to refer to “a person who is emotionally or mentally unable to cope” with something. Similarly, the greeting long time, no see, despite its perfectly neutral meaning, is apparently an appropriation from Chinese pidgin English that, in its earliest use, was incorrectly used to represent the speech of North American Indians. The North American term Grandfather clause, too, now used to refer to any “provision…which creates an exemption from its requirements for a particular class of people,” first referred to the practice in Southern states of exempting white voters from literacy tests and poll taxes on the grounds that their ancestors had been able to vote before the Civil War (unlike those of black voters). None of these terms, if they had been coined today, would likely have ever overcome their uncomfortable beginnings to arrive at their current, inoffensive meanings. Alarmed by those terms? Check out our post on those and other words with offensive origins.