On Fox News Sunday, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin used a naughty word: cojones. It's a Spanish word meaning "testicles."
Palin said that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer "has the cojones that our president does not have to look out for all Americans -- not just Arizonans, but all Americans -- in this desire of ours to secure our borders and allow legal immigration to help build this country, as was the purpose of immigration laws."
That coarse language spoken publicly by coarse people has become commonplace in contemporary America is an old story. That coarse language is spoken publicly by proper, line-toeing people, such as Palin, may be a new twist. Sarah Palin is known for many attributes, but a foul mouth is not one of them.
When a formerly taboo word is used by respectable people, is that when it enters the general lexicon? "Yes that is true. That is the purpose of euphemisms like cojones," says Robert Beard, professor emeritus of linguistics at Bucknell University. "We even have a children's book now called Everybody Poops, for which the film rights have been acquired. How mainstream can a word get?"
We are living, Beard says, in an era of tremendous upheaval -- change on a scale and at a speed never experienced before. "Everyone can now publish his or her ideas as fast as they can type them out and click publish," he says. "What is amazing to me is that there is anyone left who considers profanity profane at all." After all, the No. 1 spot on both The New York Times and NPR's nonfiction bestseller lists today is a book titled (and for the purposes of this story the expletive is thoroughly masked) #$%& My Dad Says.
The idea that there is such a thing as coarse language -- except for a very few choice words -- seems to be fading fast. Formerly edgy words -- such as condom, erectile and tampon -- have entered the mainstream. Just about anything goes.
One of the most popular movies in the country is Steve Carrell's Dinner for Schmucks. Don't know what schmuck means in Yiddish? Ask a Jewish friend. But don't call him that.
Hollywood has been in love with naughty titles for years, at least as far back as the 1958 Damn Yankees! starring Tab Hunter and Gwen Verdon and the 1962 Steve McQueen flick Hell is for Heroes.
These days "damn" and "hell" are used routinely. Can other four-letter execrations be far behind? A look at the titles of some upcoming productions reveals that profanity is proliferating. Regulating what is or isn't "decent," of course, is difficult and perhaps a violation of the First Amendment. A recent Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled that the Federal Communications Commission's indecency policies are "unconstitutionally vague, creating a chilling effect that goes far beyond the fleeting expletives at issue here."
The Sounds of Shame
Which brings us back to cojones. Palin said that while President Obama, a man, lacks them, Brewer, a woman, has them. Perhaps that bit of linguistic legerdemain lifts the word out of the literal realm and places it in the metaphorical.
Palin is not the first public figure to deliver such a cursory blow -- linguistically speaking. A couple of years ago, the Rev. Jesse Jackson -- speaking inadvertently on an open microphone -- was critical of Obama for being condescending to African-Americans and said "I want to cut his nuts off."
Earlier this year Vice President Biden –- also speaking inadvertently on an open mic -- used the gerundial version of an Anglo-Saxon monosyllabic word sometimes used in reference to lovemaking.
As far back as 1996, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright employed cojones when talking about Cuban military pilots who attacked civilian planes: "This is not cojones," she said, "this is cowardice." Albright's comment may not have been politically correct, but it was anatomically correct.
Through all of this, Palin -- the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee and perhaps a future presidential hopeful -- seems to be enjoying her role as neologist. She recently tweeted the word "refudiate" -- an amalgam of "refute" and "repudiate."
When linguistic purists refudiated her newly coined word, she tweeted: "English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!"
Words, says linguist Robert Beard, are associations of sounds with meanings. The meanings of vulgar words are not taboo. We use them in medical clinics all day long.
It is the sounds of those words, he explains, that are profane or off-color. "The very sound of these words connect them directly to our sense of shame, our moral sense, our sense of right and wrong," Beard says. "So all we have to do is substitute a different sound (such as cojones or crap) and, in most cases, we distance ourselves enough from our sense of shame to get by. Those who use the originals have to lose or ignore that sense of shame."
Assuming, he says, they were raised so as to develop one.
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.