IU professor Michael Adams watches our language in the new book ‘In Praise of Profanity’

Michael Adams, Provost Professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington, wrote "In Praise of Profanity," which was released today by Oxford University Press.

Michael Adams, Provost Professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington, wrote “In Praise of Profanity,” which was released today by Oxford University Press.

“Profanity is a stubborn fact of speech and cannot be disregarded simply because some people disapprove of it.”

Michael Adams, Provost Professor of English at Indiana University, makes this declaration well into his latest book, “In Praise of Profanity” (Oxford University Press, 2016).

“There was nobody who was looking at profanity from a current cultural perspective,” he said. “I think of what I’m doing as part linguistics, part cultural criticism and part literary criticism.”

He argues that our utterances of “the forbidden, magic words” are often not profanity at all, but rather a salty form of slang.

Adams sees the book as a continuation of “Slang: The People’s Poetry,” which came out in 2009.

In his words, slang and profanity is “poetic language that’s not sustained in a poetic project.”

“Profanity is a serious subject requiring serious inquiry,” Adams writes. His preface invites “everyone with a keen interest and sense of humor” to read the book, which is described as a celebration.

Slinging slang

Adams is a historian of the English language and a frequent contributor to various dictionaries and academic journals. His published articles often explore arcane aspects of language, yet he also writes books aimed at broader audiences, such as “Slayer Slang: A ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ Lexicon” and “From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages.”

In Praise of Profanity book coverHe is drawn to study language at the fringes of our society.

Though he has written about Elvish or Klingon, Adams doesn’t opt to speak in those tongues. Instead, he chooses to study his subjects from the outside.

“I’m neither a big slang speaker, nor a big profanity user,” he said. “I’m interested in what other people are doing. And I’m interested in why people speak the way they do in a wide variety of settings that, for lack of a better word, we could call our culture.”

Examples from popular culture pepper the intriguing book while illustrating key points of his analysis. He cites an episode of the long-running sitcom “Modern Family” in which young Lily discovers the power of one four-letter word. She spends the episode throwing it about like a new toy, each time eliciting a network bleep along with reactions of shock and laughter.

The word is never heard, and yet is powerful in its absence. As Adams writes, “the profanity isn’t in the script but in the minds of those who hear it where it isn’t.”

In printed text, dashes and symbols serve a similar role as the bleeping television. “Those asterisks aren’t fooling anybody,” he writes.

Words for our times

Adams argues we are living in “the age of profanity.”

While the word “slang” appears more than 80 times in the book, a certain expletive — you might have guessed it — appears as many times in the first 50 pages.

Yes, profanity appears frequently in the book, just as it does in the world around us.

Profanity has become common because it is useful, he writes.

Like it or not, these words have the power to unite people or divide them. They can be shared casually among friends or hurled at enemies. And at their best, our oaths can be crafted with tremendous creativity.

So is “bad language” really so bad?

Context is key, Adams said.

“I don’t like it better than anyone else when a profane word is used to stigmatize someone else or injure someone else. But as I point out in the book, you can stigmatize and injure people with very refined language if that’s what you want to do,” he said.

“Profanity itself is not responsible for the hurt. It’s just that when it’s used for hurtful rather than expressive purposes, then it doesn’t deserve our praise.”

What Adams appreciates — and does praise — is profanity’s expressive power.

He celebrates graffiti as a sort of modern cave painting. He loves to share vintage latrine poetry. And he admires that same spirit of creativity in other modern utterances.

“That’s great when people take hold of the language and start breaking the rules,” he said.

“When profanity is used for expressive purposes I always say, ‘Yay, expression!'”

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