Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Boyd K. Packer on changing language

Elder Boyd K. Packer

The idea that language changes over time isn’t very controversial, but how it changes and whether or not we can or should try to control those changes certainly is controversial. Without thinking about what they are doing in these terms, many groups both along the political spectrum and among the religious sects seek to control language to some degree.

Mormons aren’t above such attempts either. Both General Conference and local meetings have seen plenty of sermons against profanity, evil speaking and the like, as well as discourses praising kind and gentle speech. But the following excerpt from a 1967 talk by Elder Boyd K. Packer went a bit further than most, suggesting both a pattern for how language changes and implying that something should have been done differently so that language usage had less profanity. And, he blamed the proliferation of profanity in the 20th Century on novelists:


The Disease of Profanity (excerpt)

by Elder Boyd K. Packer

“¦ A generation ago writers of newspapers, editors of magazines, and particularly the producers of motion pictures, carefully censored profane and obscene words.

All that has now changed. It began with the novel. Writers, insisting that they must portray life as it is, began to put into the mouths of their characters filthy, irreverent expressions. These words on the pages of books came before the eyes of all ages and imprinted themselves on the minds of our youth.

Carefully (we are always led carefully), profanity has inched and nudged and pushed its way relentlessly into the motion picture and the magazine, and now even newspapers print verbatim comments, the likes of which would have been considered intolerable a generation ago.

“Why not show life as it is?” they ask. They even say it is hypocritical to do otherwise. “If it is real,” they say, “why hide it? You can’t censor that which is real!”

Why hide it? Why protest against it? Many things that are real are not right. Disease germs are real, but must we therefore spread them? A pestilent infection may be real, but ought we to expose ourselves to it? Those who argue that so-called “real life” is license must remember that where there’s an is, there’s an ought. Frequently, what is and what ought to be are far apart. When is and ought come together, an ideal is formed. The reality of profanity does not argue for the toleration of it.


Sunday Morning Session,
General Conference, October 1967


While I’m not sure that the details of the change Elder Packer describes are accurate (One book I read recently suggests a pivotal point at the premiere of Shaw’s Pygmalion in 1914[1]. Packer may also be looking at the then recent “beat” generation, although profanity was also a feature of the modernist movement that began in the 1910s), it is certainly true that the use of profanity in print and in other public media has expanded significantly in the 20th Century while the stigma against its use has declined significantly. Perhaps it doesn’t matter much if this change originated in novels or plays or even in changes in the general culture as the Victorian period moved on to Modernism. The more important question raised isn’t where the change began, but what could or should be done to change it.

I must admit that Elder Packer’s description gave me pause, not because I’m anxious to eradicate profanity, but because he implies a evolutionary cycle that society may not have realized. I’ve long been of the opinion that changes in language are normal and often good, and that taboo words, such as those considered profanity, are a natural (but hopefully infrequently used) part of language. I also tend to agree with the idea that literature and other forms of media need to have a high degree of verisimilitude–that literature does need to portray life as it is.

But the cycle implied by Elder Packer makes me uncomfortable. I find it believable that the cumulative effect of using profanity in novels and other media may give license for readers and viewers to increase its use in everyday life. This increased use then contributes to authors, in turn, increasing their use of profanity in new works, continuing the cycle. That idea does give me pause.

I believe this cycle happens because it matches my understanding of how language changes and the power that media does have. But what I’m not sure about is whether there are, as often happens with similar systems among groups of people, some natural counterforce or countercycle that will limit its spread. Where will it end? Has it reached a balance already?

My own belief is one I arrived at many years ago, which happens to echo the point made by the comedian Lenny Bruce in the 1960s–that profanity and offensive terms gain their power from their taboo. Increasing their use weakens the taboo, perhaps to the point that they lose their power altogether and become useless. The history of our language does include some profanity (e.g. swive) that have disappeared and other words whose offensive status has declined or disappeared. Is that what will happen because of the increased use of profanity in our culture?

Regardless, the assumptions in Elder Packer’s talk about language and how it changes show a particular conception about the role of language and literature and raise questions about how exactly our society can and should react to changes in language and its use.


[1] Lynch, Jack. The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of “Proper” English, from Shakespeare to South Park. (New York: Walker & Co., 2009), p. 234.

23 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Boyd K. Packer on changing language”

  1. Good topic.

    I never use profanity in my fiction or poetry and it very rarely slips out in my speech. Consider this: if we take a piece of literature (or speech) and do a word frequency count, how much of the precious space involved will be taken up by vocabulary which is, as I believe Gordon B. Hinckley more or less put it, a replacement for actual thought? In real life, people belch, pass gas, smear snot on the backs of their hands, have sleep in the corners of their eyes and snot in the folds of their noses, get tread marks in their underwear, grow fungus on their skin, get dirt under their nails, get lint stuck in their navels and between their toes, and just generally carry a mess around with them. These things are facts of life, but do we need to stick em’ in our stories just because they exist? Even if a character is the sort to be foul-mouthed, I don’t think it’s necessary to make a show of the foulness.

    That said, one of the hilarious features of the Soviet-era Russian novel Twelve Stools is the limited vocabulary of one of the female characters, who speaks only in single words (of which there are perhaps five) and who makes liberal use of the expletive mrak (darkness). The use of frack in the new Battlestar Galactica was pretty amusing, too, but, intentionally or not, it served as a bit of a comment on the frequency with which rather costly dialogue relies on vague expressions of intense emotion.

  2. I must admit that Elder Packer’s description gave me pause, not because I’m anxious to eradicate profanity, but because he implies a evolutionary cycle that society may not have realized. I’ve long been of the opinion that changes in language are normal and often good, and that taboo words, such as those considered profanity, are a natural (but hopefully infrequently used) part of language. I also tend to agree with the idea that literature and other forms of media need to have a high degree of verisimilitude–that literature does need to portray life as it is.

    I wonder, Kent, if what you’re describing here is not so much an evolutionary movement (you use the word “cycle”), but a slide between polarities, “gentle” and “kind” language representing the “positive” pole, or warm end of the spectrum, and the coarsest profanity occupying the furthermost reaches of the “cold” end. If so, I might suggest that profanity isn’t that much of a problem compared to the worst language that can harm without having to rely upon a single profane utterance. It may, in fact, wear all the suits and trappings of kindness, even make use of sacred words or phrases, all the while doing terrible harm.

    Furthermore, if the idea is to portray life as it is, plenty of “life” goes merrily along without having to rely upon profanity for its energy, truth and beauty. So there’s the rationale for writing without relying upon profanity for special effects.

    Language evolution theory (a fairly recent field gaining in momentum–and high time, too)describes a completely different process of language change, why it changes, what these changes have done to mankind physically (altered our brains, individually and as a group over generations) as well as intellectually and spiritually, how our brains might actually now be wired for language, and a host of other truly stunning effects that we have wrought on language and it on us. Profanity barely warrants a glance in language evolution theory. Metaphor, on the other hand, is getting a pretty close inspection because it might just be one of the most effectual catalysts for human development.

    Really exciting things are happening in language evolution theory, including that we’re finally developing the language to talk about language in more meaningful ways than referring to it as a tool, a palette for “showing life as it is,” or a dirty rubber stamp that imprints on the minds of the young as easily as Elder Packer suggests.

    Personally, I find a lot of profanity plain impotent. People’s minds are hungry for good metaphors, fine irony (boundary-crossing stuff–not sarcasm or sardonic language), and effectual imagery that awakens their senses: all the stuff that makes the best language recombinant and opens choices for its readers and hearers. Offer them that potency, and profanity will wither by comparison. They’ll have stronger words.

  3. I dunno, Mark. I don’t use profanity myself, and, since I don’t write fiction (unlike many/most here), I don’t use it in my writing very much. But I do think that it has its place, just as I think that all of the things you listed in comment #1 have their place in fiction. If it is part of the plot or the setting that supports the plot, you should use it. Otherwise, its perhaps part of your style or something and therefore, in many cases, gratuitous.

    It doesn’t seem right to suggest that you can always omit profanity. I’m certain that in at least some cases it is necessary to the book.

    But, I must admit that I’m somewhat troubled with the overall pattern, with the cycle that Packer, in my view or extrapolation, hints at.

    In any case, I think I am putting my hope in some kind of natural correction instead of a return to the pre-1970s active censorship. My reasoning is that the censorship actually increases the power of these words. Instead I would rather that our society stop giving these words so much attention and power.

  4. Patricia (3) wrote:

    I wonder, Kent, if what you’re describing here is not so much an evolutionary movement (you use the word “cycle”), but a slide between polarities

    I think that is very possible, which is why I was looking for what counter forces might make it slide back the other way. I agree with your suggestion that profanity isn’t necessary for much of life, and therefore I think it shouldn’t be necessary for much of fiction. But still a lot of fiction seems to not only use but even rely on profanity for style, even though it is unnecessary for the plot.

    As for Language Evolution Theory, I’m going to have to do some reading to get caught up on this. It sounds fascinating and I wasn’t aware of it at all. A quick google search doesn’t yet give me much to go on, so I’m open to suggestions for where I can read more about it — and I’ll look further after I finish this comment.

    As for the idea that a lot of profanity is simply imponent, I agree completely. That’s an idea that I’ve mulled over for years. Some profanity seems to be a kind of all-purpose adjective, modifier or place-holder which, because it serves every purpose ends up without any meaning at all. Overuse of profanity even means that it often isn’t even offensive–or, in other words, it loses its power. Competitive terms (like the metaphors, irony and imagery you suggest) would also lead to profanity losing power–and fill the need in our language for the offensive and the taboo.

    Perhaps the language evolution theory that you mention will give me a perspective and suggest how that could happen and what, if anything, we should do differently.

  5. .

    I don’t use profanity in my speech, but I will use it in writing if it seems necessary. I find copious profanity dull and grating in any situation and just as fiction removes most of the uhs and ums and likes, why not the ***s as well, which generally serve about as much purpose?

    I use to think s*** was on its way out, but I’ve since realized it’s become more taboo over the last hundred years and we’ve left agriculture behind.

    Although, working at a high school, I’ve realized these words have little meaning or weight to many many people.* Which makes it all the more amazing, to me, that anyone bothers with them. A total waste of time, imho.

    *hilarious but vulgar example

    Note: Kent—your footnote is missing. I would like to follow it, svp.

  6. My point about plenty of life getting along fine without profanity was not meant to suggest that I thought profanity unnecessary for fiction. In the argument that “Artists should use profanity because it shows life as it is” there’s an implicit assumption: If a technique or a device shows life as it is, then you should use it. I was merely pointing out that by that logic, an artist could justify not using profanity, because, for many, big stretches of life don’t rely upon profanity for their vividness; “reality” isn’t always salted and peppered with profanity. Some reality really is G or a mild PG-13.

    And some profanity is actually quite ingenious in its use of metaphor, though examples escape my mind. But overall, our innate attraction to interesting colorful language will often turn our heads. Hm, I guess that some of the Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange could stand as an example of interesting and necessary profanity.

    Language evolution theory: Try Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct; Derek Bickerton, Adam’s Tongue. They’ll lead you to other places. I’ll be reviewing Adam’s Tongue for WIZ. Bickerton’s adaptation of niche construction from biology to explain, describe, and speculate upon the nature of language is quite exciting (to me, because I’ve been saying for years that human language is an environment).

    As mentioned, we’re just starting to find the language to talk about language. As I’ve noted before, in talking about language we bump up against the problem the self-portrait artist has of painting a subject that is constantly moving. So sometimes you might find yourself having to be patient with these authors. But they do have valuable insights into how language lives and grows. You might have to extrapolate to explore your questions about profanity.

  7. Well, personally, I’ve never read a book or seen a movie that entirely lacked profanity without being either completely unfazed by the absence of stinky little zappers on the tips of people’s tongues or being grateful for the reprieve. But I confess I do enjoy a good J. Golden Kimball joke.

  8. The human mind does something truly magical when it takes words like “crap” and “screw,” whose meanings are crystal clear when used in a derogatory manner, and turns them into verbal hand grenades merely by shifting a few phonemes around.

    But this is a very “western” approach to the subject, tightly intertwined with ancient taboos. In Japan, for example, there is one basic word for “crap” (as a cuss word; there’s another for what bears do in the woods). Little kids use it. Gangsters use it. Its vulgarity is determined by context.

    If you want to offend somebody in Japan, you attack or deride their social status and background. The term yobi-sute means dropping the “-san” from a person’s name. It’s either a way to signal intimacy (a relationship getting up close and personal) or it’s a brazen insult. Again, context matters.

    The old term for Japan’s feudal outcasts, for example, has gone through a rigorous “euphemism treadmill,” as every generation the media scrambles about trying to find a socially acceptable word. There’s a fascinating discussion in connection to the current mayor of Osaka here.

    And, yes, there are Japanese words that remain stubbornly unacceptable in polite company, no matter what (the “c” word in particular).

  9. This reminds me of the Doonesbury cartoon that appeared at the time of the First Persian Gulf War. I suppose it was B.D. who, as a Reservist, got called up for active duty. Commenting about how different army life would be, he said that he’d “forgotten how to use the F-word.” One of the other soldiers helped him out: “Like a comma, sir. Like a comma.”

    And so it is in the streets of this city–vulgarities don’t shock anybody because they’re used like commas. Will people get bored and quit talking that way? Not until they get bored with commas, I’m afraid.

  10. So I’m writing this thing set in 1780. The f-word was not used as an adjective, but it was used frequently as a verb. It wasn’t something you said in polite society or during your morning calls, but it was in liberal use. It always has been and always will be. I blame the mouth-feel of the word. It’s just so…sharp.

    The c-word then was about the equivalent of va-jay-jay, which, by the way, I find utterly disgusting. (Va-jay-jay, not the c-word.) In fact, the c-word is no big deal in Britain.

    I have no frame of reference for how BAD “bloody” is said to be in Britain in modern times, but in 1780 it was REALLY bad, But, you know, my characters are pirates, so they say all sorts of things.

    Anyhoo, some of the faux curse words we use annoy the bloody hell out of me. Topping the list is “fetch,” “freak,” “frak,” and “fudge.” “Shite,” “heck,” “darn,” and “wench” are almost annoying. Now, I know Shakespeare had to create a slew of new ways to take the Lord’s name in vain (which, by the way, was still a crime in 1780 England), but since most of us don’t conduct our everyday lives with the intent to entertain an audience while thumbing your nose at the law, I figure if one can’t bear to say the real thing, why does one need to say anything in its place?

    Also, I loved Patricia’s not-long-enough comment about the evolution of language, and that it can be all that is all that is polite and gracious and gospel-oriented yet does a great deal of damage.

    Lastly, a sweet, clean little song about sharing and loving one’s friends:

  11. For the reader/viewer it comes down to how much of the actual smell they would want to experience on a visit to Paris in the eighteenth century.

  12. As far as I’m aware, time travel isn’t affordable yet nor do we have scratch’n’sniff ebooks, so the analogy may be stretching a little thin there. After all, a reader can just close the book or turn off the TV.

  13. A couple of thoughts:

    First, I’m not at all convinced that cussing (I started to write “profanity,” but that has a specific meaning I don’t want to invoke) is more common in spoken language now than it used to be. It is definitely more common in movies, TV, and fiction, but I doubt that causal relationship that Elder Packer draws — because I’m not sure the effect is real. Has any research been conducted on the prevalance of swearing in language over the past 50 years?

    Second, I think that sometimes part of the point of the story *is* to get a sense of just how bad 18th century Paris smelled. I agree that it’s a fine line, and prefer that most of what I read be free of cussing. But for some stories I think that a measured amount is necessary.

    On a different note, as a writer I have to say that cussing can be an extremely economical and effective way of communicating certain things, like startlement and anger. It takes some work to substitute for cussing, and in some cases none of the substitutes work as well. It may still be worth doing, in the interests of (say) not alienating part of your potential audience, but there’s definitely a tradeoff involved.

  14. Side side note: The Jorvik Viking Centre in York (England) features a display where they reproduce the sights, sounds, *and* smells of a Viking settlement. It’s definitely something to catch, the next time you find yourself in York.

  15. I think that sometimes part of the point of the story *is* to get a sense of just how bad 18th century Paris smelled.

    I could kiss you. Yes. THAT was MY point.

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