Book review: ‘In Praise of Profanity’ by Michael Adams

Swearing has long been disreputable and in many ways still is. But it has never gone away, and (at the risk of confirmation bias) it seems more visible than ever. We see and hear it not just among friends, family and neighbours but at work, on the news, and in cultural media from billboard ads to high literature – albeit often euphemised. Are we living in a capital-A, fuckin’-A Age of Profanity?

Michael Adams, in his new book In Praise of Profanity (OUP, 2016) makes a persuasive case that we are. Though not a book about the history or science of profanity, it draws on both in aiming more immediately to examine and celebrate the swearing performance itself – the feeling, the experience, the phenomenon of profanity.

In Praise of Profanity quickly gets down to brass tacks, tackling the arguments advanced by anti-profanity campaigners. What is invidiously called ‘bad’ language is a complex constellation of related types of expression, and Adams does a useful job of teasing out the distinctions and overlaps between profanity, obscenity, vulgarity, and slang. All the while he stresses their mutability and relativity:

We make profanity up as we go along, not according to some formula, but by the elastic negotiation of social meaning.


A great deal of our profanity is meaningful, not lexically, as in a dictionary definition, but expressively, as a matter of context.

As an academic with a passion for slang and other ‘low’ language, Adams is well placed to explore the various debates over profanity: the noisy issue of its morality, the scholarly question of its linguistic status, and the insidious framing of vulgarity as a stand-in for assorted prejudice. ‘On the face of it and according to tradition,’ he writes, ‘swearing is anti-social behaviour, but profanity is actually about social construction of identity by both fitting in and standing out, sometimes simultaneously.’

michael-adams-in-praise-of-profanity-oup-2016Behind the explicit point being made here is an example of the paradox that frequently attends profanity, the value of which nowadays lies in its being used ‘as freely as possible while still carrying the vestiges of taboo and vulgarity’. In examining its true nature Adams moves nimbly from Seneca and William Dunbar to Fuck Yeah Tumblr blogs and Go the Fuck to Sleep.

Public toilets, we read, are ‘magical spaces’ for their scatological fecundity. Mild as their obscenities often are (‘Here I sit in silent bliss / lisining to the / trinkling piss / now & then / a fart is heard / telling of a coming turd’), Adams is acutely interested in what motivates the inscription – and consumption – of all this transgressive epigraphy. If you’ve ever wondered how people hurling profanity might be related to chimps hurling poo, this is the book for you. Profanity, he finds, ‘proves the very limits of language’:

We sort through millions of words for those that express our ultimate frustration, and none but the profane ones meet our needs. We don’t speak so much, then, as gesture. We gesture with our lips and teeth and tongue and palate and velum in various combinations, and we push air past them, as hard as we can. We have a physical rather than verbal reaction, or, at least, our verbal reaction is more physical than lexical, though just as meaningful.

There is an occasional lapse, such as the Americocentric suggestion that it’s ‘hard to imagine’ when the word cunt isn’t face-threatening – it quite often isn’t in Australia, Ireland, and parts of the UK, particularly Scotland. A few writers’ names are misspelt.

Three case studies put pop culture centre stage in the final chapter. Swearing in The Sopranos serves as a means to study anger and self-control; James Kelman’s mighty (and mightily controversial) Booker-winning novel How Late It Was, How Late allows issues of power, class, and empathy to be addressed; and the cursing comedy and songs of Sarah Silverman, Nellie McKay and others bring focus onto gender politics. It all serves to show:

how authors can use profanity to accomplish big things and how reading profanity as essential to the texts in question – rather than as a sort of aesthetic lapse – enriches our reading of the texts and cultures they examine and evaluate, whether medieval Scotland or twenty-first-century America. . . .

We are taught to see profanity in an author like Chaucer as mistakes we can overlook given his or her literary stature. The problem, we assume, is with Chaucer’s language. Chaucer, however, identified us as the problem long ago.

Adams does not encourage anyone to swear more than they already do. But he offers ample food for thought and entertainment for anyone interested in the act, regardless of how much they swear. ‘Profanity has its dark side,’ he writes, ‘but no one seems to spend much time thinking about the good it does’. His book is a fine corrective to that bias, showing the many benefits of swearing: social, aesthetic, creative, emotional: the sheer fun of deviant linguistic expression.

In Praise of Profanity by Michael Adams is published by Oxford University Press and is available from Amazon or your preferred bookstore. Disclosure: OUP sent us a copy for review, and Adams has been a guest author on this blog. He also cites Strong Language in the book when describing the appeal of clusterfuck, over which he bonded with other academics at a lexicography conference. Praise the word.

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