Sunday, October 30, 2016

263. The Golden Age of Profanity, and Do We Have a Right to Swear?


         This post is about profanity.  Not New York profanity, because -- in spite of provocations like jack hammers, traffic jams, subway delays, jolting buses, and construction obstacles -- New Yorkers don't swear any more (or any less) than other people, nor are their oaths any different.  Yet what I confess here may cost me some friendships, since I'm going to reveal my dark heart and foul tongue.  But first of all, what is profanity?  There’s no easy, all-embracing answer, since opinions vary with time and place.  The word itself is a noun formed from the adjective profane, which comes via Old French from the Latin profanare, “to desecrate, render unholy, violate,” and from profanus, “unholy, not consecrated,” which in turn comes from pro fano, meaning “in front of the temple” -- in other words outside it, secular, or desecrating what is holy. 

         Yet today we use the word “profanity” to indicate indecorous language, language that is obscene and therefore forbidden; it may or may not be blasphemous or sacrilegious.  Profane language today can be blasphemous, using God’s name in vain (a violation of the Third Commandment), or obscene, often using certain common four-letter (and sometimes five-letter) English words that designate the bodily functions of sex and excretion.  Freud long ago observed that the close proximity of our organs of sex and excretion has caused humanity a huge deal of woe, and he was probably right.

         What brought this subject to mind, where it has probably been lurking long since, is a review in the New York Times of October 2, 2016, of two new books on the subject: Benjamin K. Bergen, What the F: What Swearing Reveals about Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves (Basic Books, 271 pp.), and Michael Adams, In Praise of Profanity (Oxford University Press, 253 pp.).  I have perused neither of these new arrivals, but note that the first sounds learned and analytical, whereas the second sounds like a joyful celebration of our use of dirty words.  The Times reviewer, Josh Lambert, salutes Benjamin Bergen’s treatment of the subject, but notes that it “saps a little of the joy out of dirty words.”  Michael Adams’s book, on the other hand, catalogs the many benefits of cursing a blue streak.  (Why “blue,” by the way?  Why not red or yellow or black?  But let’s not digress.)  He observes that today is a wonderful time to swear, involving little risk while letting one feel brave and subversive.  The 21st century in America is – for the moment, since these things can change – the Golden Age of Profanity.

         I’m glad to hear it, because as far back as I can remember, I have cursed.  Not loudly, in public, but muttering sotto voce, while swearing resoundingly in private.  Given my soft-spoken and temperate public manner, my effusions of sweetness and light, my friends probably don’t even suspect the raging curses and resonant profanities of my private moments.  What sets me off?  For the most part, trivia: a slight stumble, a misbehaving computer, something misplaced and urgently needed, something dropped on the floor, a junk phone call or even a welcome one at an inopportune moment: in short, the minor mishaps and trivial contretemps of daily living, which most people dismiss with a shrug.  And what exactly do I say?  (Here all delicate and easily affronted viewers should tune out.)  Expletives like these:

·      Shit!  A thousand times shit!
·      God shit-ass damn!
·      Holy fuck.
·      Oh puke! 
·      You blatant prick, shut up!  (To the phone.)
·      You goddam piece of shit!  (To my computer.)
·      Jesus H. Christ!  (No idea what the H stands for.)
·      Holy turd!
·      You filthy cocksucker!  (Usually to some inanimate object.)

         So here are Christian and scatological terms in a feisty mix.  Certainly I’m no stranger to the seven dirty words banned from radio and television: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, montherfucker, tits.  But if once, momentarily vexed in my childhood, I called a friend as “a saber-toothed tiger,” I confess that my arsenal of expletives today is sadly deficient in originality.  And when a friend, by chance overhearing a few of my utterances, thought he discerned a note of conscious and intentional blasphemy, I replied that in all honesty I was simply using the swear wordsI had grown up hearing all around me – not in my family, but on the playground, at school, and on the street -- without any thought of intentional blasphemy or sacrilege. 

         What would be a good example of truly original profanity?  There are plenty in Shakespeare, but the most memorable one that I know of is an outburst mouthed in King Lear by Kent, who to his face calls another character


Now that is swearing --  good, earthy, gutsy profanity.  While the familiar “son of a bitch,” richly renewed, is buried in there, the whole spiel reeks of a lurid originality that few of us today can match.  Indeed, our current vocabulary is by comparison tepid and threadbare.  (Why the blue print, by the way?  I have no idea.  My computer's idea.)

         Once, on the phone, while talking to a representative of my health care plan, I in frustration muttered a soft “Jesus Christ!”  “There’s no need for profanity,” the representative officiously announced, which provoked in me a rare burst of fury.  I almost said to him, “Sir, that comment was not meant for your ears, but since you heard it and saw fit to respond, please be advised that if I want to use such language, I fucking well will!”  I squelched the impulse to say it, but ever since have regretted that I didn't.  A unique incident in my experience that revealed to me my passionate belief that I have the right to swear as I please.  

          (A side note: I have almost never cursed in the state of Indiana.  I have family and friends there, and they and Hoosiers generally are so welcoming, so decent, and so tolerant of this slightly depraved New Yorker venturing in their midst, that I feel no need or desire even sotto voce to curse.)

         But do I have the right to swear?  Back in 1999 I heard of the arrest of a young man in Michigan who, because his canoe capsized, soaking him, and because his buddies then guffawed, spouted a torrent of oaths.  A mother canoeing with her two young children was shocked at hearing him and covered the ears of one child, but couldn’t protect the other from this verbal assault.  A sheriff’s deputy on patrol nearby ticketed the offender for a misdemeanor under an old law of 1913 and later testified that the profanity could be heard a quarter of a mile away.  Though the ACLU rushed to the defendant’s rescue, the "cussing canoeist" was convicted and could have served 90 days in jail.  Such language, the prosecutor said, would be tolerated "maybe in New York City, but not in Standish, Michigan."  But in 2002 the Michigan appeals court overturned the 1913 law, saying that it violated the First Amendment.  Be that as it may, I would have gladly consoled the defendant by saying that, there but for the grace of You Know Who, went me.  The "curser" (as his buddies at work termed him) had no intention of offending others in public, but was prompted by a sudden unforeseen mishap.  A quick bit of online research shows that these cases, and the issues they raise, are quite common.

         While I vigorously affirm my right (except in Indiana) to swear, I also confess that, when provoked by some trivial occurrence, my profanity is just plain stupid and childish.  To counter or alleviate it, I have three stratagems.

1.    Squelch it.  Often when, provoked by the misbehavior of some trivial object, a torrent of expletives is about to burst from my mouth, I stifle the torrent and say instead, reprovingly, “Why you naughty little recalcitrant object!”  Tame, yes, and perhaps insipid, but a stab at minimal gentility. 

2.    Cancel it out.  On the advice of a Catholic friend, to eliminate an unintended blasphemy I say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  And believe me, I say it a lot.

3.    Smother it in sentiment.  This, at least, shows a little originality.  When a screeching “Fuck you!” blasts forth (at some object, not a person), I soften and sentimentalize it by singing “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you…” to the tune of “Sweetheart, sweetheart, sweetheart,” the celebrated duet sung by Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in the 1937 film Maytime, a love story so lyrically and drippingly sentimental that the mere thought of it steeps me in a cloyingly sweet stink of apple blossoms:

Sweetheart, sweetheart, sweetheart,
Will you remember me ever
Will you remember this day
When we were happy in May …

Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you
I’ll love you black and blue
I won’t remember this day
When we were so gaga in May …

Or something of the sort, since my lyrics, determinedly silly and offensive, change from day to day.  Not great poetry, but it serves a purpose.

         Of course the standards of gentility, and therefore of profanity, have undergone transformations throughout the centuries, with the middle and ruling classes much concerned with such matters, and the working class much less so.  Gosh and golly are softenings of God, and geeze and gee surely stem from Jesus.  Copulate and penis are 16th-century stand-ins for coarser (i.e., working-class) terms.  White meat and dark meat, commonly used even today when carving or serving poultry at the table, were coined to avoid such vulgarisms as breast and leg.  And we habitually use restroom for a room that has little to do with repose.  Victorian mores shunned any direct reference to the physical.  As a friend once informed me, back in those genteel days sweat was not to be applied to humans.  “Animals sweat,” went the rule, “people perspire, and young ladies glow.”

         Just in my own time, things have changed.  When Clark Gable, near the end of the 1939 film Gone with the Wind, uttered the forbidden word damn – “Frankly, my dear,” he tells Vivien Leigh, “I don’t give a damn!” -- it had resonance.  But in the 1974 film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the fast-talking waitress Flo, played brilliantly by the actress Diane Ladd, utters reams of profanities that fly by the audience’s ears with the speed of lightning, but register nonetheless as profane.  And for that gritty role Ms. Ladd got an award for best supporting actress.

         If we laugh at the euphemisms of past generations, someday future generations will laugh at ours.  Even in our supposedly liberated age – the Golden Age of Profanity, when almost anything goes – some words are forbidden.  Feminists have compelled us to avoid the “c-word,” designating female genitalia, and our growing ethnic sensitivity has rendered the “n-word” taboo, except when spoken by African Americans among themselves.  And if shit and perhaps fuck are slowly winning acceptance, the free use of fart and cocksucker still distresses some.  Political correctness vs. honest candor is an ongoing war, and gentility still, on occasion, raises its formidable head.  Which makes our language interesting, and thrusts upon us the eternal challenge of knowing when, and when not, to use certain juicy but forbidden words.  But let’s face it, using them is fun.



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          My poems:  For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down.  To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here.  For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.

          My books:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.



No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.





        Coming soon:  The marvels to be found on the north shore of Staten Island, and maybe a post on New York moments --  those sudden sights and encounters that reveal the essence of the city, perhaps supplemented by the strange deaths possible in New York.

         ©   2016   Clifford Browder