The high costs of low language.
Sunday, Jan. 14, 1996: A day that will live in–well, not infamy, exactly. Blasphemy would be closer to it.
Early that afternoon, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Indianapolis Colts to win the American Football Conference championship. Linebacker Greg Lloyd, accepting the trophy in front of a national television audience, responded with enthusiasm. “Let’s see if we can bring this damn thing back here next year,” he said, “along with the [expletive] Super Bowl.”
A few hours later, Michael Irvin of the Dallas Cowboys offered this spirited defense of his coach on TV after his team won the National Football Conference title: “Nobody deserves it more than Barry Switzer. He took all of this [expletive] .”
Iwatched those episodes, and, incongruous as it may sound, I thought of Kenneth Tynan. Britain’s great postwar drama critic was no fan of American football, but he was a fan of swearing. Thirty years earlier, almost to the week, Tynan was interviewed on BBC television in his capacity as literary director of Britain’s National Theater and asked if he would allow the theater to present a play in which sex took place on stage. “Certainly,” he replied. “I think there are very few rational people in this world to whom the word ’[expletive]’ is particularly diabolical or revolting or totally forbidden.”
It turned out there were a few more than Tynan thought. Within 24 hours, resolutions had been introduced in the House of Commons calling for his prosecution on charges of obscenity, for his removal as a theater official, and for censure of the network for allowing an obscene word to go out on the airwaves. Tynan escaped punishment, but he acquired a public reputation for tastelessness that he carried for the rest his life. To much of ordinary Britain, he became the man who had said “[expletive]” on the BBC.
Neither Greg Lloyd nor Michael Irvin was so stigmatized. “It’s live television,” NBC Vice President Ed Markey said, rationalizing the outbursts. “It’s an emotional moment. These things happen.” Irvin wasn’t about to let that stand. “I knew exactly what I was saying,” he insisted later. “Those of you who can’t believe I said it–believe it.”
Swearing isn’t the only public act that Western civilization condones today but didn’t 30 years ago. But it is one of the most interesting. It is everywhere, impossible to avoid or tune out.
- I am sitting in a meeting at the office, talking with a colleague about a business circumstance that may possibly go against us. “In that case, we’re [expletive] ,” he says. Five years ago, he would have said “screwed.” Twenty years ago, he would have said, “We’re in big trouble.” Societal tolerance of profanity requires us to increase our dosage as time goes on.
- I am walking along a suburban street, trailing a class of pre-schoolers who are linked to each other by a rope. A pair of teen-agers passes us in the other direction. By the time they have reached the end of the line of children, they have tossed off a whole catalog of obscenities I did not even hear until I was well into adolescence, let alone use in casual conversation on a public street.
- I am talking to a distinguished professor of public policy about a foundation grant. I tell her something she wasn’t aware of before. In 1965, the appropriate response was “no kidding.” In 1996, you do not say “no kidding.” It is limp and ineffectual. If you are surprised at all, you say what she says: “No shit.”
What word is taboo in middle-class America in 1996? There are a couple of credible candidates: The four-letter word for “vagina” remains off-limits in polite conversation (although that has more to do with feminism than with profanity), and the slang expression for those who engage in oral sex with males is not yet acceptable by the standards of office-meeting etiquette.
But aside from a few exceptions, the supply of genuinely offensive language has dwindled almost to nothing as the 20th century comes to an end; the currency of swearing has been inflated to the brink of worthlessness. When almost anything can be said in public, profanity ceases to exist in any meaningful way at all.
That most of the forbidden words of the 1950s are no longer forbidden will come as news to nobody: The steady debasement of the common language is only one of many social strictures that have loosened from the previous generation to the current. What is important is that profanity served a variety of purposes for a long time in Western culture. It does not serve those purposes any more.
What purposes? There are a couple of plausible answers. One of them is emotional release. Robert Graves, who wrote a book in the 1920s called The Future of Swearing, thought that profanity was the adult replacement for childhood tears. There comes a point in life, he wrote, when “wailing is rightly discouraged, and groans are also considered a signal of extreme weakness. Silence under suffering is usually impossible.” So one reaches back for a word one does not normally use, and utters it without undue embarrassment or guilt. And one feels better–even stimulated.
The anthropologist Ashley Montagu, whose Anatomy of Swearing, published in 1967, is the definitive modern take on the subject, saw profanity as a safety valve rather than a stimulant, a verbal substitute for physical aggression. When someone swears, Montagu wrote, “potentially noxious energy is converted into a form that renders it comparatively innocuous.”
One could point out, in arguing against the safety-valve theory, that as America has grown more profane in the past 30 years, it has also grown more violent, not less. But this is too simple. It isn’t just the supply of dirty words that matters, it’s their emotive power. If they have lost that power through overuse, it’s perfectly plausible to say that their capacity to deter aggressive behavior has weakened as well.
But there is something else important to say about swearing–that it represents the invocation of those ideas a society considers powerful, awesome, and a little scary.
I’m not sure there is an easy way to convey to anybody under 30, for example, the sheer emotive force that the word “[expletive]” possessed in the urban childhood culture of 40 years ago. It was the verbal link to a secret act none of us understood but that was known to carry enormous consequences in the adult world. It was the embodiment of both pleasure and danger. It was not a word or an idea to mess with. When it was used, it was used, as Ashley Montagu said, “sotto voce, like a smuggler cautiously making his way across a forbidden frontier.”
In that culture, the word “[expletive]” was not only obscene, it was profane, in the original sense: It took an important idea in vain. Profanity can be an act of religious defiance, but it doesn’t have to be. The Greeks tempted fate by invoking the names of their superiors on Mount Olympus; they also swore upon everyday objects whose properties they respected but did not fully understand. “By the Cabbage!” Socrates is supposed to have said in moments of stress, and that was for good reason. He believed that cabbage cured hangovers, and as such, carried sufficient power and mystery to invest any moment with the requisite emotional charge.
These days, none of us believes in cabbage in the way Socrates did, or in the gods in the way most Athenians did. Most Americans tell poll-takers that they believe in God, but few of them in a way that would make it impossible to take His name in vain: That requires an Old Testament piety that disappeared from American middle-class life a long time ago.
Nor do we believe in sex any more the way most American children and millions of adults believed in it a generation ago: as an act of profound mystery and importance that one did not engage in, or discuss, or even invoke, without a certain amount of excitement and risk. We have trivialized and routinized sex to the point where it just doesn’t carry the emotional freight it carried in the schoolyards and bedrooms of the 1950s.
Many enlightened people consider this to be a great improvement over a society in which sex generated not only emotion and power, but fear. For the moment, I wish to insist only on this one point: When sexuality loses its power to awe, it loses its power to create genuine swearing. When we convert it into a casual form of recreation, we shouldn’t be surprised to hear linebackers using the word “[expletive]” on national television.
To profane something, in other words, one must believe in it. The cheapening of profanity in modern America represents, more than anything else, the crumbling of belief. There are very few ideas left at this point that are awesome or frightening enough for us to enforce a taboo against them.
The instinctive response of most educated people to the disappearance of any taboo is to applaud it, but this is wrong. Healthy societies need a decent supply of verbal taboos and prohibitions, if only as yardsticks by which ordinary people can measure and define themselves. By violating these taboos over and over, some succeed in defining themselves as rebels. Others violate them on special occasions to derive an emotional release. Forbidden language is one of the ways we remind children that there are rules to everyday life, and consequences for breaking them. When we forget this principle, or cease to accept it, it is not just our language that begins to fray at the edges.
What do we do about it? Well, we could pass a law against swearing. Mussolini actually did that. He decreed that trains and buses, in addition to running on time, had to carry signs that read “Non bestemmiare per l’onore d’Italia.” (“Do not swear for the honor of Italy.”) The commuters of Rome reacted to those signs exactly as you would expect: They cursed them.
What Mussolini could not do, I am reasonably sure that American governments of the 1990s cannot do, nor would I wish it. I merely predict that sometime in the coming generation, profanity will return in a meaningful way. It served too many purposes for too many years of American life to disappear on a permanent basis. We need it.
And so I am reasonably sure that when my children have children, there will once again be words so awesome that they cannot be uttered without important consequences. This will not only represent a new stage of linguistic evolution, it will be a token of moral revival. What the dirty words will be, God only knows.