In 2005 the American Film Institute voted that the best movie line of all time was the one that Clarke Gable deftly delivered as the character Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. If you endured all four hours of melodrama you’ll certainly recall his parting dismissal of Scarlett O’Hara’s whiny interrogative, “Where shall I go, what shall I do?” Rhett rewardingly utters the words on the mind of every male viewer who is still awake, served with the cool and immortal preamble: “Frankly, my dear …”
The Motion Picture Association’s production code was fortuitously amended a mere month prior to the film’s release and for the first time it allowed the use of borderline curse words under this condition:
if it shall be essential and required for portrayal, in proper historical context, of any scene or dialogue based upon historical fact …or a quotation from a literary work, provided that no such use shall be permitted which is intrinsically objectionable or offends good taste.”
The determining standard of what is “intrinsically objectionable or offends good taste” has proven quite the moveable feast. Words that were respectable vernacular in the Elizabethan era would get a kid’s mouth washed out with soap today, and diction that would never escape the censor’s “intrinsically objectionable” razor as recently as 1939 are now heard on every silver screen in the Western world, and even occasionally on the news (at least in Anchorage).
While as Christians we acknowledge that God’s standards of holiness are immovable a thinking linguist must acknowledge that what different cultures and periods consider to be taboo is a perplexing field of study.
It’s hard to use examples without stepping into a cow paddy of intrinsic objections. But one instance I am confident no monolingual American would find offensive is the Afrikaans cuss words “bliksem” and “donder”. These are two words South African pastors are permitted to use neither in the pulpit nor in private. Both words “offend good taste” and commonly precipitate the taste of soap for a South African child. Exactly what Afrikaaners find offensive about the words is a brow-furrowing enigma.
Biksem and donder are the words for—I kid you not— lightning and thunder, respectively. When deployed in a meteorological context they are perfectly acceptable and often used with impunity on the nightly news.