I’m not sure where I picked up on it, but I always thought that the word “profane” meant “against God”. After doing research for this blog, I discovered that that wasn’t the original definition of the word, but it had evolved into that definition.
The original definition of ‘profane’, around the 1450’s CE, meant “before the temple”. This referred to buildings that were in immediate visual range of the temple, or church, which was not affiliated with the temple. An easier way to think about it is, if you were standing outside by the entrance of the temple, any building you can see around the temple that was not affiliated with the temple was a profane building. In the definition “before the temple”, the word “before” means “outside” or “in front of”, not the time frame. So, any building that was around, or in front of, a religious building but wasn’t religious was profane.
Eventually, the definition of “profane” came to mean “desecrating what is holy” since having a building with no religious affiliation seem to taint the area. Beyond that, the definition of “profane” became “with a secular purpose”, meaning any building with no religious affiliation was profane, even if it wasn’t around the temple. If a building was established that provided a public service, but had no religious ties, was profane. For example, a barbershop can be considered a profane building since people go there to get their haircut (or their flesh cut, depending on the era), and not to worship a deity.
Then, of course, the word “profane” evolved to refer to anything that was secular, not just buildings. In its beginning stages, anything that was secular wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Secular just referred to things that were “not of God”, or neutral. Back then, only the word “blasphemy” referred to anything that was “against God” because blasphemy was taken as a direct offense or assault against religion. In other words, a barbershop could be considered secular, because although it is not a religious establishment, its presence is not aggressively attacking religion. Whereas, as comedy theatre that allows comedians to actively voice any adverse opinions against religion while on stage would be considered blasphemy since they’re directly “attacking” religion. But both the barbershop and the comedy theatre are profane.
As time passed and the understanding of religion evolved, it now became that all things profane is against God. It was determined that anything that is not of God, whether it was directly against religion, or neutral, it was still against God. A Christian today will tell you, even though a person may be a good person, if they do not accept Jesus Christ as their savior, they’re still going to hell, regardless. There are no in-betweens, all or nothing. If you are not with God, you are against God, whether you intend to be or not.
Understanding where the word “profane” originates from gives me a clear understanding of why religious people may have a problem with anything profane. We’ve established that profane deals with anything that is against God, so if a person were to say negative things about God, then the things that were said would be profane language. But that still means that the words that are spoken have to be said in a certain context in order for it to be against God, unless profane language, like the profane buildings, can mean anything that is spoken that has nothing to do with God is profane. So, if the barbershop is profane since it is not affiliated with religion, saying, “I’m going to the barbershop,” must be profane language since the statement has nothing to do with religion as well. I know that might seem ridiculous, but I’m quite sure, somewhere out there, there is a religious fanatic that believes that. Probably the same type of person that would take a vow of silence in insure they never say anything profane, which would be technically anything.
Okay, so far, the majority of society hasn’t gone to the extreme to where we consider just basic communication profane if it never mentions anything religious. And I think it makes sense that any word in the English language can be profane if the context of which it was spoken was a direct assault against religion. But it still doesn’t explain why certain words are already considered profane before they are spoken in any context. And it also doesn’t explain why those particular words were selected to be the profanity we’ve come to know them to be. This mystery boggled my mind, but I began to piece this mystery together after I did research on the word “vulgar”.