We've noticed lately that the wee one is getting really good at learning mannerisms and she's quick to pick up on things that will make her mother and I laugh, or anything that will get a reaction for that matter. Elaine taught her how to give Eskimo kisses in a matter or minutes. She saw a pair of blinking eyes on the computer the other morning and spent the rest of the day imitating them. This is all well and good but it makes me realize that my days of cursing in the house are numbered. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if some of the untranslatable words she screams when I'm trying to change her diaper might not have their origins in swearing. Have you ever tried to quit the curse words? Fucking hard, I tell ya. At least Steven Pinker can tell us why we curse and why cursing is so goddamn hard to give up:
The historical root of swearing in English and many other languages is, oddly enough, religion. We see this in the Third Commandment, in the popularity of hell, damn, God, and Jesus Christ as expletives, and in many of the terms for taboo language itself: profanity (that which is not sacred), blasphemy (literally "evil speech" but, in practice, disrespect toward a deity), and swearing, cursing, and oaths, which originally were secured by the invocation of a deity or one of his symbols.
In English-speaking countries today, religious swearing barely raises an eyebrow. Gone with the wind are the days when people could be titillated by a character in a movie saying "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." If a character today is offended by such language, it's only to depict him as an old-fashioned prude. The defanging of religious taboo words is an obvious consequence of the secularization of Western culture. As G. K. Chesterton remarked, "Blasphemy itself could not survive religion; if anyone doubts that, let him try to blaspheme Odin." To understand religious vulgarity, then, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of our linguistic ancestors, to whom God and Hell were a real presence.
Say you need to make a promise. You may want to borrow money, and so must promise to return it. Why should the promisee believe you, knowing that it may be to your advantage to renege? The answer is that you should submit to a contingency that would impose a penalty on you if you did renege, ideally one so certain and severe that you would always do better to keep the promise than to back out. That way, your partner no longer has to take you at your word; he can rely on your self-interest. Nowadays, we secure our promises with legal contracts that make us liable if we back out. We mortgage our house, giving the bank permission to repossess it if we fail to repay the loan. But, before we could count on a commercial and legal apparatus to enforce our contracts, we had to do our own self-handicapping. Children still bind their oaths by saying, "I hope to die if I tell a lie." Adults used to do the same by invoking the wrath of God, as in May God strike me dead if I'm lying and variations like As God is my witness, Blow me down!, and God blind me!--the source of the British blimey.