Well, I swear.
Is it just me, or are four-letter words inescapable these days?
I’m not a prude and I’ve been known to utter “bad words” on occasion, but it seems as though whatever barriers once existed to profanity in polite society have died a quiet death.
I first saw the four-letter word for excrement in print in a community newspaper around 1968, when I was 10, long before pooper scooping became the law. The writer was complaining about dog feces left on the sidewalks, but he sure didn’t write “feces.”
I grew up in a home where such words were never used. Seeing an obscenity in print was shocking. How young and naïve I was.
My dad took me to a hockey game around 1970. The crowd expressed its extreme displeasure with the opposing team, chanting that they did something vacuum cleaners and suction cups did. I didn’t know what they were talking about, and my father wouldn’t explain it. It took a few more years before I got clued in.
Then came George Carlin’s “7 Dirty Words” routine, which gave an intellectual patina to the public use of vulgarity. Next, the Nixon tapes, filled with infinite [expletive deleted]’s, bracing the nation with the revelation of locker room language in the Oval Office. How shocked we were to discover that all the president’s men had potty mouths.
Then came the great Red Sox-Yankees rivalry of the mid to late 1970s, replete with chants of “Yankees suck!” (And, in the Bronx, “Boston blows!”) Traditionalists were appalled. Young people were delighted with the public naughtiness of it all.
In the 1980s, comedy clubs, late night TV, hip-hop and cable removed whatever objections people had to “bad words.” And then came Howard Stern on satellite radio, and then the Internet and social media, and the wheels came off, once and for all.
As profanity rises, subtlety vanishes. Back in the day, limits actually enhanced creativity and even comedy. The owner of the all-woman band in the 1959 Billy Wilder classic “Some Like It Hot” has to watch her language, as did everyone else back then. She hilariously tells the band manager, “Every girl in my band is a virtuoso, and I intend to keep it that way!”
“Obscene” derives from the ancient Greek prefix “ob-” or off and the word “skene,” which means stage, from which we take the word “scene.” Anything that the Greeks wouldn’t put on a stage was considered ob-skene, or obscene. Today, there are no standards, on stage or off.
These days, in fact, the world is awash in bad language. The former president notoriously referred to certain “s—hole countries” in Africa. A recent Politico.com article quoted one British politician describing others as “f—wads,” which does have a certain British ring to it. Even some business books are replete with swear words; it’s hard to tell whether the authors are struggling to appear au courant or whether they’re just clueless about how offensive they will be to broad swaths of readers.
It used to be a sign of ill breeding to use profanity in public. No longer. Expletives were always part of the workplace conversation, but they were confined, in gentler times, to moments when women were not in earshot, and used only with people one already knew.
These days, I’m always surprised when total strangers – business prospects or others, men or women – drop f-bombs at first meetings. Don’t they realize that someone might be offended? Or am I the last person on earth to care?
Women of my mother’s generation never used coarse language. Today, gender makes no difference when it comes to four-letter words or gerunds derived therefrom. Decades ago, swearing was associated with sailors, not with college-educated women. Of course, back then, only sailors had tattoos, too.
It appears that there is no turning back; that profanity, out of the mouths of men, women and babes, is irrevocably part of our daily discourse. The world is the worse for our boorishness.
Are there more pressing problems than the fact that expletives are no longer deleted? That we, and our children, are subject not just to Carlin’s 7 dirty words but also to others that even Nixon might not have used?
Yes, but if you want my opinion, it’s still a f—ing shame.