A p-word has gotten US presidential candidate Donald Trump into trouble, just as a longer p-word has been getting our President Duterte into the international limelight, negatively.
I’m referring to profanities, about which there have been many articles in the international media following Duterte’s public utterances and now, the release of an old videotape where Trump dropped a p-word while talking about women.
Profanities provide abundant material for social scientists to study. For today’s column, I want mainly to show the range of profanities, why they’re used, and how we might want to change some aspects of how we currently use them.
The term profanity refers to taboo words, from the Latin “profanes” or outside the temple. Benjamin Bergen, a professor of cognitive science at the University of San Diego, California, wrote an article recently in The Guardian about how, across cultures, there are four main categories of profanities.
The first draws from, where else but the sacred. These are terms from religion, used “outside the temple,” as in “Christ,” “hell,” “damn,” or our Filipino “sus” (from Hesus) and “susmariosep” (Jesus, Mary and Joseph). In the Philippines they’re usually exclamatory, rather than blasphemous, but the more religious might object to the use of these words.
The second domain is that of sex and sexual acts, and we’ve borrowed so many from English, like the f-word. Included in this domain are sexual organs. These words are loaded, used for exclamation, as well as to insult people. Duterte’s favorite p-word (or words) are examples.
The third domain would be stuff expelled from the body, and the parts of the body used for the expulsion. Feces seems to be almost universal, from the English “shit” to the French “merde.” Again, the words can be exclamatory, or to put down a person, as in “you a–hole.”
Finally, we have the slurs, the insults, usually against a particular race, but also may be directed against particular religions and ethnic groups. The more divided a society is, the more of these slurs you’ll find.
The profane is the opposite of the sacred, and yet we find across societies throughout the world widespread use of these taboo words, almost casually for many terms, much like an exclamation point; and more seriously in other cases, to express strong emotions, or to insult someone. Societies therefore have rules on when these profane terms can be used, by whom and in what settings.
My obstetrician friends say there’s a marked difference in the use of profanities by women in labor, depending on whether they are in public or private hospitals. In public hospitals the women unleash some of most seismic vulgarities to express and relieve their pain, throwing in a volley of curse words targeting the men who got them pregnant. In contrast, in private hospitals, the mothers-to-be are a bit more circumspect, going “syet,” “syet” or “Ouch, ouch, ouch, doktora, put me to sleep na, ouch.”
If there has been an uproar over Duterte’s profanities it is because he says them so publicly, in front of local and international media. The problems have been compounded by his p-expletive which has been translated by the international press as “son of a whore,” which is sort of correct but is open to being interpreted as a curse word directed against someone (recently against no less than President Barack Obama).
But we know there’s a world of a difference between “p—– ina” and “p—– ina mo,” the former an exclamation, and the latter an insult directed at someone. Moreover, Duterte’s favored expletives are part of a macho male repertoire, what I call “adre tang-a talk”: We hear it all the time; an example, sentences peppered with adre and pare and tang-a with no particularly strong emotions.
Anak ng …
Now when you end a sentence, as Duterte does, with a loud “p—– ina,” you know there are intense emotions involved. The problem is that people, younger ones especially, pick up an entire communication package: A child sees tatay in a rage, using profane words they might not even understand, but like a cellphone camera, they pick up the entire performance—words, facial expressions, hand gestures—and use this on their siblings or playmates.
Fortunately, children are shielded from President Duterte’s profanities because the audio is beeped out by broadcast media. But older kids—and adults—read about the profanities and begin to think it’s OK, if not macho, and high-status to use these p-words so loosely.
We need to look at the words and how they can violate people’s sensibilities. This is what happened to Trump. He talked about grabbing a woman’s “p—-” laughing about it, and later claiming it was “locker room talk,” talk among boys, which he thought would make it more acceptable; but it made people, women especially, even angrier.
This is why I don’t like the term “bad words.” We need to explain to our children that everyone shits, so “shit” is not a “bad word.” In fact, I often use a Chinese Minnan expression with my children when they want to follow the latest fads, the phrase more or less meaning: “If others eat shit, does that mean you should eat shit, too?” I know it sounds shocking in English, but it’s folk wisdom and my kids love it. Going a step further, I warn them, too, not to call people shit, garbage or basura, or anything demeaning.
That takes us to the p—– ina expletive. I do not like the term because it debases women, mothers in particular. Someone does something to make you angry and instead of berating him you call his mother a whore. Of course, he gets insulted at being called son of the whore, but the insult is particularly painful because it curses the mother, too.
Profanities speak of the nation. I did a preliminary inventory of Filipino profanities and compared it to those in American English and Minnan Chinese, and ours come out quite tame.
Nevertheless, p—– ina does keep coming back to give us an image of vulgarity.
People take to profanities because they get pleasure from releasing tension—and insulting enemies. The more you use them, the more addicted you get to them, addiction being a search for pleasurable feelings from a certain activity. If we have a war on drugs, we may as well have a war on p-words that degrade women.
I know it will be difficult asking Duterte to shift to syet or sanamagan (son of a gun, a watered down version of son of a b—-, now used mainly by upper class senior citizens, and I mean senior). But the bottom line is that our mothers, and women, deserve more respect.
It’s all a matter of conditioning. You can get “pleasure,” too, from modified profanities. I smile when people start, “anak ng. . .” (son/daughter of. . .) and then catch themselves and instead say, “tupa” (sheep, but note it is an inversion of p—), or “pating” (shark) or “tipaklong” (grasshopper) or whatever. What counts is that the “p,” now rendered innocent, is almost funny. You still feel good, and maybe the person you were about to insult might end up laughing, too, and apologize.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.