by Brian Tomasik
First written: 4 Jul. 2016; last update: 7 Aug. 2016

Summary

The meaning of words is often defined by context, so censoring just a single swear word while preserving the rest of the context may not fully accomplish the (silly) goal of censorship.

Introduction

Avril Lavigne's 2011 song "Smile" begins as follows:

You know that I'm a crazy bitch
I do what I want when I feel like it
All I wanna do is lose control (oh, oh)
But you don't really give a shit
You go with it, go with it, go with it
'Cause you're fucking crazy rock n' roll.

The video of a performance of the song for Walmart Soundcheck omits the three swear words but preserves all surrounding context. Most censorship of swear words is done the same way.

Ramsey sentences

Typically, a minority of words that humans know are learned from a dictionary. Most of the time, we pick up the meanings of words based on context, i.e., based on the functional role that each word plays in the sentences where we see it. Hence, we can define new words as entities that act in such-and-such functional relationships with other words.

This is the idea behind Ramsey sentences. For example, we might define a "shit" as an x2 such that "But you don't really give a x2" (and such that various other sentences containing x2 are also true; it's often hard to determine a word's meaning based only on a single sentence).

A Ramsification of Lavigne's lyrics could be

There exist x1, x2, and x3 such that
You know that I'm a crazy x1
I do what I want when I feel like it
All I wanna do is lose control (oh, oh)
But you don't really give a x2
You go with it, go with it, go with it
'Cause you're x3 crazy rock n' roll.

We may also wish to include the way the words are spoken as part of their functional descriptions, since often swear words are distinguished by the passion with which they're enunciated and the heated situations in which they're deployed.

Multiple realizability

In the spirit of functionalism, the Ramsey approach to swear words shows that the actual content of the swear words (i.e., the letters that compose them) isn't as relevant as the way the words behave when used.

For example, the swear word "sucks" is multiply realizable in the sense that "stinks" is an alternate collection of letters that can be used (mostly...) interchangeably with it. Or one could invent a wholly new collection of characters like "whomps".

Why censor swear words?

I think censoring swear words is silly, even in the presence of children. But suppose you think it's important. Even if so, the fact that the meaning of swear words is created by context suggests that merely censoring a single word doesn't protect innocent young ears, since the relevant parts of swearing (the surrounding words and the passion with which they're spoken) remain audible.

Here are two possible arguments for why single-word censorship does accomplish something:

  1. Because all swear words are censored the same way (e.g., with a "bleep"), young kids don't have different labels (x1 vs. x2, etc.) to distinguish different swear words, so they have less information than is contained in a Ramsification. This might somewhat confuse attempts to deduce the meaning of any particular swear word.
  2. Censoring words prevents kids from being able to look those words up and thereby find information that wasn't contained in the original context in which the words were used.

That said, I suspect that the main explanation of censorship for swear words (or nudity for that matter) is that swear words (or nudity) provoke strong emotional reactions in adults who have more context for what's being said or shown. Because adults react strongly, they feel as though children should be protected from this emotion-inducing stimulus. Removing just the single word may be sufficient to reduce strong visceral reactions by adult listeners, since adult brains are already wired to associate the single word with lots of related ideas and emotions.

But I think swear words are emotional because of the passion with which people use them. If people commonly said "This whomps!" with a loud and angry tone, and if people tried to cover young ears when that expression was said, then "whomps" would probably become a swear word over time. In analogy with the euphemism treadmill (a euphemism "rapidly takes on all the connotations of the original word or phrase it was used to replace"), I conjecture that any word can become a swear word if it's used in the ways that existing swear words are used. Words like "darn" and "heck" aren't necessarily counterexamples to this conjecture, because those words aren't seen as forbidden, and people don't usually declare them as passionately as people declare their swear-word siblings.