The Babe Ruth bartender tale entices because it reveals people in a post-Victorian era, when public mores were so much starchier, using a word that we, even today, think of as distinctly dirty. Perhaps nothing can make long-gone people seem realer to us than evidence that they used words like fuck. Profanity channels our essence.
“Oh, jolly shit!” is funny first in that a woman was saying something with such a smutty feel in front of her kids, but also in that it shows how our urge to curse often bypasses even our fundamental instinct to make sense. How can shit be jolly? And if that wasn’t what she meant, then what exactly did “Oh, jolly shit!” mean? And if the answer is nothing, then why do we say such things? What the fuck is that? is subject to similar questions. What part of speech, exactly, is fuck in that sentence? Profanity channels our essence without always making logical sense.
And Carlin’s routine resonates in pointing up how arbitrary the power of curse words seems when we consider that they are, ultimately, only words. Carlin stood there, coolly rattling them off in a way that no comedian could have on a commercially released album 10 years before, and the sky did not fall. Profanity channels our essence without always making logical sense, leaving us quaking at the utterance of what are, in the end, just some words.
But clearly these aren’t “just words” like names of fruits or animals at the zoo. When you yell “Damn!” or “Fuck!,” you are not simply uttering a word. Curses are verbal ejaculations, more squawks than labels. A word is presented; a curse is squirted. This is part of why curses can be so utterly disconnected from their technical meanings. In saying “Damn!” we are not cursing in the direction of anything as if “damning” it; “Fuck!” we say when stubbing our toe, certainly not meaning “Sexual congress!” Curses are yelps clad in the guise of words, like those little chocolate bottles filled with booze. To approach these with thoughts of Godiva and Russell Stover is to miss their point, which is what’s sloshing around inside them.
The point, then, the essence, is the squawking sense of offense, our coping with a blow via the visceral and immediate gesture of swatting back to cause a compensatory offense. You level this revenge by saying something you have been told that you should not, by breaking a rule—that is, by doing something taboo. Herein lies profanity’s punch. As Carlin deftly got it across, “These words have no power. We give them this power by refusing to be free and easy with them. We give them great power over us. They really, in themselves, have no power.” In themselves, not—but curse words are ones that, while maintaining the same outward form, long ago ceased being themselves, having been vested with the power of transgression.