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Bergler, E. (1936). Obscene Words. Psychoanal Q., 5:226-248.

(1936). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 5:226-248

Obscene Words

Edmund Bergler


The papers on obscene words so far published date from the early days of psychoanalysis (Freud, 1905; Ferenczi, 1911). This makes it plain that four problems have not been given

consideration: 1. Information is lacking regarding the conditions under which the ego condones obscene words. 2. One fails to find any reference to the mitigating of the sense of guilt to which the employment of such words gives rise. 3. Emphasis was placed too much on the anal, and too little on the oral. 4. Obscene words were treated solely from the standpoint of the man uttering them, while nothing was said with regard to the passive desire to hear obscene words on the part of both men and women.

On the basis of a number of case histories of orally fixated or regressed patients, it is shown that in the oral stage the giving forth of words on the part of the child corresponds originally to a proof of love towards the mother, much as the stool represents a gift in the anal phase. Secondarily there may be observed a complete interruption of this giving forth, in consequence of disappointment with the mother—"oral obstipation". All these individuals go through a period of obstinate silence during their childhood, and only as a tertiary development is the giving forth reëstablished at a phallic level with negative manifestations, possessing now, however, in the form of obscene words the meaning of abuse and disparagement. Nevertheless, in this active uttering of obscene words the old-time pleasure is again smuggled in. These words represent a "magic gesture" intended to show how the patient would like to be treated, together with this reproach addressed to the mother: "See what you have made of me". The abuse contains a confession of love, that is, of the desire to be loved, in which voyeuristic and exhibitionistic impulses are at the same time gratified.

In orally fixated or regressed men who want passively to hear obscene words spoken by women, these words are built into the total pathological attitude which results from the subject's being shipwrecked, so to speak, on the "mammary complex" they belong in the symptom complex of wishing only passively to receive. In this way guilt feeling is allayed, since the woman is made responsible for the sexual transaction and at the same

time vengeance is exacted, since the mother imago who originally forbade these words is now forced to utter them.

The uttering of obscene words—which psychologically correspond to oral flatus—represents a curiously regular combination of tendencies from the first two stages of development, and is an expression of tender as well as hostile attitudes. Thus obscene words represent in their symbolization of flatus a defense against the mother. These words derive a pleasure-giving quality also from the economy of inhibition and suppression described by Freud in connection with wit. If in orally fixated or regressed individuals obscene words are important only in relation to the mother, in compulsion neurotics there occurs a secondary displacement upon the homosexually loved and hated father in the form of blasphemies. Normally, however, obscene words play a variable rôle among healthy people too, as an act of forepleasure, so much so that often the uttering of these words on the part of the man is expected by the woman as part of her sexual subjection.

On the clinical side, individual cases, together with the frequently noted combination with masochistic-homosexual and voyeuristic tendencies, are demonstrated, and referred to the living out of infantile megalomania in coprophemia. Finally, the very variable means of disposition of the guilt feeling resulting from the utterance of these words (that is, the fantasies concealed behind them) are reviewed, and as a common example of this, that of the cynic is emphasized. The cynic makes use of the so-called "cynical mechanism" which is itself a means of mitigating the sense of guilt.

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