Reader advisory: This post contains strong language.

It’s a word not welcome in polite company. But it’s also a part of everyday speech for many people. In a burst of enthusiasm, rock singer Bono used it as an intensifier during an awards show that was being broadcast live. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission took offense, and fined the network that broadcast the phrase. The network appealed, and six years after the original incident, the Second Court of Appeals said the FCC was wrong[1]. The decision was reported in the news media. But it was sometimes reported inaccurately.

The Hollywood Reporter: “The case stemmed from profanity uttered by celebrities during live broadcasts.” Bloomberg: “…profanities uttered spontaneously by performers during live TV broadcasts.” New York Times: “…repeated instances of profanity by celebrities.”

Why are these news outlets wrong? Because there was nothing profane about Bono’s spontaneous outburst (or the similar incidents alluded to in the news reports). He said, “this is really, really, fucking brilliant” when he was given an award.  Profanity refers to blasphemy, that is, “taking the Lord’s name in vain” (to quote the Second Commandment), or something similar. But the word “fucking” has nothing to do with heavenly beings. It’s about as earthy a word as you will find.

This is a distinction that is sometimes lost on people, as the quotes from the news sources suggest. But it is important culturally. Historically, the FCC’s focus on merely indecent, rather than obscene, language can be traced back to comedian George Carlin’s famous “Seven Words you Can Never Say on Television” from the early 1970s. (Second reader advisory: I’m about to list all seven forbidden words at once, so some readers might want to close their eyes as they read the next paragraph.)

Carlin’s list was made up of the following words: piss, shit, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.

As it turns out, none of these words is profane.  They are all vulgarities. None of them insult the Lord; they have sexual or excretory denotations. That is the kind of thing Americans find offensive. But other cultures have different opinions on what is offensive.

Take Bono’s “fucking brilliant” comment. Bono is not American, but Irish. The FCC says that the use of fuck or one of its variations “inherently has a sexual connotation.” That is hardly the case. Even Americans would be hard-pressed to explain how an intensifier used in the way Bono did has anything to do with sex. The situation in Irish English, Bono’s native language, may be even more apropos here. The characters in Irish novelist Roddy Doyle’s Dublin sprinkle such words throughout their speech like salt on French fries. It doesn’t refer to sex. This is apparent because when they mean to talk about the physical sexual act, they use the term “riding” instead.

Some of our neighbors to the north also have a different take on what is offensive. A French-Canadian linguist provided me with a list of curses used in French-speaking Quebec. Here are the translations of these “bad words:” Christ, tabernacle, chalice, host, ciborium. Yes, using “Christ” as an expletive may make some religious Americans wince, but that is not true for the other terms. How many Americans could even tell you what a ciborium is? (It is the container for the hosts, pieces of unleavened bread, used in a Catholic mass.) Curses like these would merely puzzle Americans, not offend them.

There is a broad pattern here in Western societies, and this is where the distinction between profanity and vulgarity becomes more important. As a general rule, societies that are primarily Protestant frown on vulgarity; Catholic societies don’t like profanity. Most Americans identify themselves as Christian, and about two-thirds of those are Protestants[2]. America is a Protestant country. In contrast, six out of seven people in Quebec (the French-speaking part of Canada) identify as Catholic[3]. The Protestant/vulgarity, Catholic/profanity generalization holds in these cases.

The distinction between profanity and vulgarity is even lost on the FCC, the people charged with policing taboo language. The Second Circuit Court’s ruling mentioned that the FCC had modified its own interpretation of federal law. The FCC’s decision under discussion had called the awards broadcast “profane” rather than “indecent” even though it included no blasphemy.

When you swear, are you vulgar or profane? Or both?

[1] Docket Nos. 06-1760-ag, 06-2750-ag, 06-5358-ag, decided July 13, 2010.

[2] Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

[3] Canadian 2001 census.