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Friday, June 13, 2008



There is a huge difference between how Spanish and American cultures view profanity, especially on the official level of television. Where almost no form of foul language can escape the vigilant ears of censors on American TV, almost anything goes—at least linguistically—on Spanish programs. I just finished watching one of my favorite talk shows here in Spain called Buenafuente. Normally this show airs at midnight but there are also weekly recaps that come on in the morning. On this particular episode the host and namesake of the program, Ignacio(?) Buenafuente, was interviewing Pancracio Celdrán, Catedrático del Taco or professor of obscenities. He is the author of El Gran Libro del los Insultos. Not only did they cover just about every Spanish vulgarity, but they also spent quite a while talking about the word “fuck” in English.

Could you even imagine if anyone ever said “fuck” on an American TV show? First of all, at least three little old ladies in Alabama would drop dead. But that would never happen because the censors would bleep it out and then make the producers of the show wash the video in bleach before allowing it to be aired. Afterwards they would wash out the mouth of the guilty swearer with soap. I just finished reading a long report about the strength of America's right to freedom of expression compared to almost every other Western democracy, so why do we get so bent out of shape over profanity? Your right to free speech in America evidently does not cover yelling “Cocksucker!” in a crowded theater. Does being protected from vulgarity on television make us more civilized?

I don't think that Spanish people, on average, swear any more or less than American people, and when I say American people I don't include myself because I swear more than anyone I have ever met—at least anyone I have ever met who wasn't in the American military. Tourettes Syndrome-like swearing seems to be a by-product of military service, like some sort of phantom Gulf War disease. Although it isn't apparent to me that Spanish people swear any more or less than Americans, I would say that obscenities are more accepted and used by a larger percentage of the population.

Certain words like mierda (shit) and puta (whore) are used with almost alarming frequency in Spain. Hardly an episode of Family Guy (Padre de Familia) goes by without the word mierda being used, and I don't think this is a direct English translation. Profane words hardly seem to make a bleep on the radar in Spanish life unless they are used in a hostile or aggressive fashion.

Besides mierda, the other thing you hear a lot is puta and hijo de puta (son of a whore) which is one of the big insults in the Spanish-speaking world. I'm surprised that there isn't a protest organization here called something like Mothers of Sons of Whores to stand up for the rights of those being insulted. Being the son of a whore doesn't sound like the worst thing in the world to me, but I come from an English-speaking country. For me it sounds kind of glamorous—at least it would if mom were one of those high-profile hookers. Anyway, it sounds more fun than being the son of a virgin.

Take those seven words George Carlin says you can't say on American TV, put them all in one sentence, and you could say that on a Spanish talk show, even in prime time. There's even a popular show called “Without Tits There's no Heaven” (Sin Tetas no Hay Paraíso). I've never seen the show. I guess that the premise is just too obvious for me, I mean, come on, heaven without boobs? Of course not. My point being that there ain't no tits on the radio nor on American TV, not physically and not even the word. We do do violence, however, and lots of it. Spain has yet to really catch up to us as far as this fascination with graphic violence is concerned. I'll leave that irony for another essay.

Buenafuente mentioned that he thought that the richness of English was being lessened by the over-use of the word “fuck” in the modern, English-speaking world. I don't know his level of English but if his English is anything less than very good this may be explained by the fact that you will hear words in another language that you know, and not hear those you don't—if that makes sense. If you know the word “fuck” in English you will hear it every time it is spoken, which may seem like a lot but it really isn't. What you aren't hearing is all of the words you don't know. If all you know of Spanish is puta and mierda, it will seem like people are saying these words a lot. I certainly wouldn't say that English or Spanish speakers swear any more than the other. What I will say is that—at least in America—we show a lot of phony puritan concern for profanity in the public sector, especially on the airwaves.

There is a wonderful scene on an episode of The Wire in which detectives Bunk and McNaulty investigate a crime scene while only using the word “fuck” in every and all of its almost countless nuances. What the scene illustrates (besides their great police work) is that profanity is not much more than linguistic sawdust.* It is simply filler that has no purpose other than to fill the space between words which actually are meant to carry meaning.

My father once told me that children shouldn't use profanity when adults were around. He knew better than to think that kids weren't going to swear. That's like expecting kids not to misbehave or set stuff on fire. That's what kids do. My father passed away before he was able to give me advice about using profanity as an adult. The funny thing is, I swear worse than a pirate in English (or better than one, depending on your point of view) but in Spanish I choose not to swear. I just think that profanity sounds dumb with an accent. I still have to think before I say a lot of stuff when I speak Spanish. If I had to think before I spoke English I would rarely choose to employ profanity. In my native language the filth just sort of leaks out, it's the sawdust that fills the cracks in conversation.

How anyone could possibly be truly offended by profanity is strange to me but I suppose that's because I'm not exactly the delicate sort. I don't have to keep smelling salts in my purse for fear that I may swoon when someone says “shit” or “fuck” in the course of conversation. Making a big deal out of profanity is like when parents make a big fuss when they hear their young children use foul language. No matter how you feel about profanity, it's part of the language and it's here to stay. Pretending it doesn't exists just seems silly to me, but what the fu%# do I know?

*I wish I could take credit for that great bit of word coinage. I came across it in a text book on English grammar.

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