In second grade, Sister Rose Catherine explained that a bad word was more than just bad. A bad word, she told us, is an actual thorn piercing the sweet flesh of Jesus. Well, I took this one to heart. When at recess a boy named Mike started spewing terrible words all over the place, I actually grabbed him and slammed my hand over his mouth. Hadn’t he been listening to Sister?
Well, Mike objected. He really objected, let me tell you.
And he wasn’t the only one. So, to save my own hide, I had to cut back on my righteous word-cleansing campaign before it fairly got under way. In fact — although it took a few years — I eventually went so far as to join the other side. Mike and the other dirty guys turned out to have been on to something. That is, once a boy gets over his initial misgivings, there’s a power, a congenial crackle and spark released by the breaking of linguistic taboos.
Because it was mainly boys back then, of course. No one is as exuberant with bad words — dirty words, swear words, profane, vulgar, obscene, blasphemous words — as a boy on the brink of puberty, anticipating puzzles and cravings he doesn’t actually have the hormonal wherewithal to wonder properly about yet.
Even when we outgrew the thrills released by that initial cracking of prohibitions, those words turned out to be, well, useful.
Take “hell” — small salt as profanity goes these days. Now, Sister Rose Catherine just hated hell (the word — she clearly found the idea fine and dandy). But we messed with hell in as many ways as we could. We used it as an interjection: “Oh, hell!” As an adverb: “Run like hell!” A super-superlative: “hotter than hell.” Adapted as an adjective: “a hellish situation.” An intensifier: “The hell you say!” An intransitive verb: “We were just helling around.” As a straightforward noun: “Go to hell!” And as keystone for idioms galore: “hell-bent-for-leather, hell in a hand basket, hell’s bells, play merry hell with, all hell broke loose…” Of course, at a certain point, saturation sets in, as you may have noticed in the previous paragraph.
And something like this has turned out to be the case with the current national scene as well. That is, there’s been a troubling public proliferation of dirty words, if not exactly saturation — yet.
Here’s a benchmark: In 1972, George Carlin famously held forth about the Seven Words You Can’t Say (guess which ones). Four of those seven have in fact been printed in our very own Inlander in recent years (guess which ones).
Another benchmark: the fi rst F-bomb that rolls from the rosy lips of your cherubic offspring.
So just how did we get to this place? Well, we could blame Lenny Bruce, for one. Yes, that’s right, Lenny Bruce, jazzy stand-up comic from the ’50s and ’60s, legendary author of How To Talk Dirty and Influence People. Lenny was a prophet of — and some say martyr to — the idea that repression of so-called obscene language was part and parcel of repression of the energy and beauty and naturalness of the body itself. Slapping a ban on such discourse, according to Lenny and his apologists, merely diverted this energy by some sort of Freudian hydraulics into destructive channels, resulting in those scourges of the ’50s:
Venereal disease! Juvenile delinquency! And the rising tide of illegitimacy! Loosen the strictures, the theory went, and a feedback loop would come into play, and an era of mature and golden and wholesome sexuality would surely be upon us.
Well, hey, it can’t be denied that the shackles on language are loose now, really, really loose. So, anybody see any kind of golden age going on around here?
Clearly, Lenny blew it with that one. And clearly, with plenty of contemporary Sister Rose Catherines just aching to stuff that maledictory jack back into the box, our ongoing cultural dissonance has reached quite a pitch. Just a few years ago on the fl or of the Senate, the Vice President of the United States told a senator to go eff himself on the same day his party ramrodded the Defense of Decency Act.
But maybe we can be more judicious with our dirty words. Perhaps we can explain to our cherubs that the problem with bad words isn’t just that they don’t sound nice when little kids say them. No, we can also bemoan the laziness of contemporary profanity, the way it’s degenerated through overuse into a slack and flabby reflex. We need to teach our children to reserve such words for those occasions when they’re really needed: hammersmash, drunken stupor, road rage.
Well, maybe not. But at the very least, let’s encourage creativity. The trick is — we can tell the children — to use profanity sparingly, as a shot of spice rather than a galumphing entrée. Follow Shakespeare’s lead. Instead of, oh, say, a bastard, try calling someone a “boltinghutch of beastliness, a swollen parcel of dropsies, a whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch!” Or try Mark Twain.
In one of his letters, Twain delivered one of the great insults of the ages when he referred to a fellow as a “quadrilateral astronomical incandescent son of a bitch!” Note the rhythmic polysyllabic buildup, the aggressive glitter, the sting in the tail…
Steve Wing is a freelance writer in Spokane. He is still quite fond of the word “hell.”