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Profanity is a word choice or usage which many consider to be offensive. The original meaning of the term was restricted to blasphemy, sacrilege[?] or taking God's name in vain (profane speech), especially expressions such as "God damn it", "go to Hell", and "damn you".

However, the meaning has been extended to include scatological or sexual terms (in English, primarily shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cock, tits, fart, turd, twat, faggot, and, frequently, bitch and bastard). The list includes words that are merely vulgar as well as those thought obscene. Compare the concept of the four-letter word.

There has always been great difficulty in defining profanity. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission, in response to complaints about a 1973 broadcast comedy routine by George Carlin called Seven words you can never say on television, ruled that such language could not be broadcast "at times of day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience." The Supreme Court of the United States upheld this act of censorship in 438 U.S. 726 (1978). The words occurring in Carlin's monologue were: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits. Carlin's routine using these words has since been broadcast, however. In the early 1960s, Lenny Bruce had been taken to court for using some of these same words in his own comedy routines.

Terms of profanity have historically been taboo words. Some words originally considered profane have become much less offensive with the increasing secularity of society, while others, primarily racial or ethnic epithets which can be considered part of hate speech, have become increasingly taboo.

The word cunt maintains much of its taboo status at least partly due to the influence of feminism, though other feminists are attempting to "reclaim" a neutral or complimentary status for this word. Shakespeare hinted at the word in Henry V and Hamlet: Hamlet and Ophelia quip about "country matters" when he tries to lay his head in her lap; and the French Princess Katherine is amused by the word gown for its similarity to the French for cunt, coun.

Many people today consider the word nigger much more offensive than sexual or scatalogical terms. (Although it depends on the context in which it is used -- people of African descent sometimes use the term among themselves, typically dropping the r and ending on the vowel: nigga.) This sensitivity to the word nigger has even extended to the point of attempting to ban the use of the word niggardly, which many mistakenly believe to be related to the word nigger.

Psycholinguistic studies have demonstrated that profanity and other taboo words produce physical effects in people who read or hear them, such as an elevated heart rate.

This fact is seen by some as evidence that reclaiming of words such as queer is a valid way to remove its power. See also the article on nigger, as well as Drum and Bass for the reclaiming of the word jungle.

The situation is rendered more complex when other languages enter the picture. In European Spanish, cono (usually translated as "cunt" in English) is very common in spoken discourse, meaning no more than "Hey!" or "Christ!". Likewise, in French, merde as well as Scheiße in German (both usually translated as "shit") are also quite common as an expletive meaning little more than "Damn!". It is also interesting to note that while German and other languages' profanity seems to focus on precipitation, English seems to have an issue with sexuality in this respect.

Some scholars have noted that while the French and Spanish are comfortable hearing native speakers use these words, they tend to hear the "stronger" meaning when the same words are spoken by non-native speakers. This may be similar to the differences in the acceptability of queer or nigger depending on who is saying the words.

A profane word in one language often sounds like an ordinary word in another. Fuck sounds like the French words for seal (phoque) and jib (foc); shit sounds like the Russian for "sewn". Even names in one language may appear as vulgar words in another linguistic community, which causes many immigrants to change their names (common Vietnamese personal names include Phuc and Bich). A particular coincidence is the Hungarian and Spanish words for "curve": Spanish curva sounds like Hungarian kurva, a Slavic word for cow used in Hungarian for "prostitute", and Hungarian kanyar sounds like cono, mentioned above. In Romanian "curva" means "prostitute".

Profanity took a very interesting form in Russia where there exists a language of sorts, most of its words based on four basic profane roots - nouns penis, whore, cunt and verb fuck. At least two hundred derivative words exist in this language, plus countless word combinations. It is possible to sensibly communicate using just these four basic roots. Due to countless very fine nuances (stress on a different syllable changes the meaning of certain words etc.) it is not easy to master that language which is very widely used in Russia, especially in rural areas. Before the 1990s these words never appeared in print (except special articles published in universities) and they remain officially banned on TV and in the movies.

Likewise, Quebecois French can string a few basic terms from Roman Catholic liturgy into quite impressive strings of invective of up to a minute or more. This is known as sacre.

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