Lexicon Valley

How “Locker-Room” Became Synonymous With Dirty Talk

The world is Trump’s locker room.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Donald Trump has slandered many people, places, and things during his presidential campaign. Last week, he added one more to the list: the locker room.

“This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago,” Trump said in a statement responding to the 2005 video in which he described the privileges a “star” like him can take with women. (“Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”) Under questioning at Sunday’s presidential debate, Trump quintupled down on the locker room: “I don’t think you understood what was—this was locker-room talk. … Certainly I’m not proud of it. But this is locker-room talk. … I hate it. But it’s locker-room talk, and it’s one of those things. … It was locker-room talk, as I told you. That was locker-room talk.” On Wednesday, in a New York Times story that described Trump making unwanted sexual advances on two women, the candidate said it again. “I don’t do it. I don’t do it,” he said, referring to, in the Times’ words, “whether he had ever done any of the kissing or groping that he had described on the recording.” He added, “It was locker room talk.”

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While athletes and nonathletes alike have noted that techniques for assaulting women are not in fact common locker-room conversation topics, there’s no denying the locker room is synonymous with off-color words and actions. Merriam-Webster defines the adjective locker-room as “of, relating to, or suitable for use in a locker room; especially : of a coarse or sexual nature.” The Oxford English Dictionary has a similar two-part definition, one that specifies which gender is likely to perpetrate locker-roominess: “Designating language, attitudes, or behaviour associated with or considered typical of a (men’s) locker room, esp. in being vulgar or coarse.”

The first section of both of those definitions—a way to describe stuff that happens in a locker room—was the dominant usage when changing rooms containing lockers emerged in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Locker-room talk was idle chatter or gossip, usually about a sport, especially golf. A 1921 story in the Rochester (New York) Democrat and Chronicle commended a magazine article that “sketches accurately and in a delightfully humorous way some of the locker-room talk that may be heard at any country club.” The Los Angeles Times in 1928 reported that “Wade Jones provided the local golfing bugs with some locker-room talk by defeating Gilly Eckles in the second round of the president’s cup tournament at the Oakmont Country Club layout.”

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In 1929, the Fort Myers, Florida, News-Press’ delightfully named golf scribe, Jerry Diefenderfer, titled a section of a column “Locker Room Humor.” (“Dear Editor; In your opinion is Horton Smith a flash in the pan? Answer: Buddy, he’s a whole volcanic eruption.”) New York Herald Tribune columnist Richards Vidmer occasionally turned over his space to “Locker Room Language,” in which he quoted duffers at length. (“Someone started ribbing Dudley Roberts, who had a brilliant 66, with eight birdies, a week before, about playing with the girls,” Vidmer wrote in 1941.) A Philadelphia Inquirer columnist in 1934 observed that “locker room talk is the most trivial and least interesting of all conversation.”

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But the not-in-polite-society, boys-will-be-boys sense of locker-room as an adjective (or attributive noun) was also in evidence. I searched several online databases for locker-room talk, locker-room language, locker-room humor, locker-room jokes, locker-room banter, locker-room vulgarity, and other locker-room terms. The earliest citation I could find alluding to the locker room as a place for casual or inappropriate speech was a 1929 United Feature Syndicate column by a former advertising executive named Gordon H. Cilley. “You may know the public pretty well, but you must remember that it doesn’t know you and you can’t talk to it off hand in locker room language,” Cilley said, advising copywriters not to dumb down their work.

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The idea that the locker room was explicitly vulgar was close behind. In 1933, Forum and Century magazine panned comedian Fred Allen’s CBS radio show The Linit Bath Club Revue, saying, “a few men’s locker-room jokes have been diluted to a bathroom atmosphere.” In 1942, syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler, a noted conservative, elitist, moralizing crank, wrote this:

Having recently acknowledged the huge ability of the American man of big business and his value to the community in time of war or peace, I might add that he is, in his moments of social relaxation, the most poisonous and vulgar bore on earth, with a penchant for incoherent oratory larded with the catchwords of the hour, stupidly dirty and aged locker-room jokes and timeworn songs, drunkenly done.

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As postwar American culture slowly grew more profane, and sports grew more popular, the locker room became more closely associated with bawdy speech and behavior. In 1951, the Pittsburgh Press wrote about the shuttering of a student humor magazine at the University of West Virginia that was “jam-packed with pungent, locker-room humor.” “It is the locker-room jokes that make him laugh,” Newsday columnist Jimmy Cannon wrote in 1958 about pitcher Warren Spahn. In 1960, Bob Hope said of foul-mouthed comedic newcomer Lenny Bruce, “Yes, I know he uses locker-room humor, but the guy is opening up new realms of comedy. Some of his stuff is brilliant.”

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The association between sex talk and locker-room talk became explicit in the ’60s. In 1963, the Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Press reported that advice columnist Ann Landers had told a local audience that “sex used as recreation, fodder for locker-room talk or as something to hide indicates that ‘attitudes need overhauling.’ ” In 1970, a high-school student was quoted in the Oil City (Pennsylvania) Derrick: “I think the sex education program in the tenth grade is a little worthless. By the time you reach that grade, you have already heard it from locker room talk and other places.”

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Jim Bouton’s no-holds-barred 1970 baseball memoir Ball Four was “[b]ursting with spirited expletives, with locker room talk as frank as anything now published,” one reviewer wrote. Nixon White House dirty trickster Charles Colson warned in 1981 about his former boss’s secret tapes: “You’re going to see noble moments, you’re going to see locker room talk, you’re going to see gutter talk, you’re going to see dirty jokes, you’re going to see wise cracks, you’re going to see serious reflections—the whole range of human experience.”

It wouldn’t be long before locker-room acquired its Trump-ian usage, becoming a convenient linguistic way of diminishing or dismissing lewd behavior. In 1984, when members of an all-male club near Philadelphia were told a female reporter was at their annual luncheon, one man shouted, “Where’s the pool table?” He was referring to a widely publicized gang rape trial in New Bedford, Massachusetts. One guest, the county sheriff, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that “there is a place for that kind of humor because it’s basically locker-room talk.” In 1987, a prosecutor in Florida resigned after “openly and graphically” claiming to have had sex with other attorneys in his office. He ran for county sheriff anyway, telling the St. Petersburg Times that “voters would judge the details of his forced resignation as nothing more than ‘locker room talk.’ ”

That guy dropped out of his race. Trump, of course, hasn’t dropped out of his. If only he had been at Ann Landers’ talk in Sheboygan in 1963. Boys who boast about “conquests,” the 16-year-old Trump would have learned, are “selfish, inconsiderate and immature.” Inside a locker room or out.