There, that’s out of the way.
We gather today, brethren and sistren, to talk about obscenity, vulgarity, cursing. Bad language not in the grammatical sense but in the moral sense. I warn you that we may get to talking dirty.
A news story brought this to mind. Some people want to take another look at the strictures that broadcast media labor under. On cable and satellite TV practically anything goes, but on broadcast TV if a star at an awards show releases the so-called f-bomb—as has happened more than once—heads might roll. Some see broadcast TV as the last refuge of decent language, of keeping the vulgarians at bay; others see these strictures as silly prudery or a battle already lost. I don’t know where these arguments will take them.
I do know that we have become much less publicly inhibited about language. In print media, for example, the f-word was for decades strictly forbidden. Then some bold editors started using substitutions like “frigging” or employing coy asterisks (“f**k”). The practice of The New Yorker probably evolved (devolved?) this way and now one regularly encounters the word “fuck” or its cognates in its pages. If someone being profiled says it, they print it. One imagines William Shawn spinning in his grave.
By the way, you may be wondering about the title of this wonk. A dingbat is an ornamental piece of type, the modern equivalent of the busywork in illuminated manuscripts. But I have also heard that those symbols on the top row of the keyboard—what you see in the comic strips to indicate profanity—are referred to as dingbats. Thus, when the klutzy cartoon character mashes his thumb with a hammer, he will scream, “*^&%$!!@!!!” Now you know. Fun word, dingbat.
Some definitions, just to be precise. Cursing—which is often used to cover the whole topic lately—means to hope that ill befalls someone. It runs from “God damn you” and “Go to hell” to “May your children spit on your grave.” “Jesus [H] Christ” is not, strictly speaking, cursing, but for a Christian it is profanity, taking God’s name in vain. All the rest of it is obscenity, words that should not be uttered in polite society. All those four-letter words. Whether it is sacrilegious or just coarse and vulgar, may we use “bad language” to cover it all? Thanks.
Bad language is, or was, usually associated with the ill-educated, the rabble, the lower classes. Your grandmother would have pointed out that such people use bad language because their proper vocabularies are so meager that the poor creatures have little else to fall back on to express their thoughts. There might be some truth in this, but the implied snobbery drowns it out. Could it be that the hoi polloi have more to be enraged about than the smug upper classes, and for that reason the f-word and similar locutions come more naturally to them?
But I don’t believe that, either. Bad language, it seems to me, is most often a sort of verbal tic. I use words like “hell” and “damn”—hardly offensive these days—without even thinking about it. “Goddamn” impinges a bit more on my awareness. I rarely say “fuck.” Sometimes it is genuinely spontaneous but at other times it is calculated, and at those times I feel silly: “Oh look! He’s a Phd but not above using the f-word.” I am linguistically slumming and should be ashamed of myself.
Grandma also said that the trouble with using bad language trivially (“I tripped over the fuckin’ tricycle”) was that if something truly awful happened to you, you would be at a loss to properly express your outrage and pain (sort of like debasing the coinage). This gave rise to the anecdote about somebody’s uncle who always swore (another loosely used term) like a pirate. But when he lost a couple of fingers to his chainsaw, he is supposed to have stared at the digits down there in the dirt and said, “Aw, the dickens.” Well, it’s a good story, but the theory has holes big enough to drive a friggin’* truck through.
You could spend an academic career—and some have—studying this stuff. For now, just a couple more observations. For the most part we decry bad language, but there are (shaky) defenses for it. “Well, at least it’s honest,” some say. I guess that means that if something is more than a darn shame, then if you are true to yourself and the experience you should call it a fucking shame. Maybe. And if you work hard at being a real character—untypical grannies are the usual suspects here—then your language is called “salty” and you get a pass. In fact, you get an audience.
Anyway, I don’t mean to be a prude, but watch your language, ok?
*I do get tired of the f-bomb. You got a friggin’ problem with that?
Meet Your Macinstructor
Jerome Shea is an emeritus professor of English at the University of New Mexico, where he still teaches his classical tropes course every fall and his prose style course every spring. He has been the Weekend Wonk since January of 2007. His email is email@example.com.