Profanity, Vol. 17, Issue 3

Last week the President of the United States used a profanity to cast a racist slur on other nations. That report, already contested, caused Etiquetteer to think about the state of profanity in America today. It might best be embodied by these three quotations:

“There is nothing either bad or good, but thinking makes it so.”  - Hamlet, Act II, scene ii

“The Tabasco sauce which an adolescent national palate sprinkles on every course in the menu . . . “ - Mary D. Winn (speaking of sex)

‘Freud found sex an outcast in the outhouse, and left it in the living room an honored guest.”  W. Bertram Wolfe (also obviously speaking of sex)

Profanity gets a lot more play than it used to, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. A growing number of people just do not care about Traditional Bad Words (though a great many still do). For at least the last 40 years the Soiling Tide of Profanity has risen in American culture, so that now most Americans roll happily as pigs in a Mucky Surf of Linguistic Waste. Profanities appear on stationery, clothing, and Items of Daily Life. In the 21st century, use of alternate spellings to get around internet censorship (e.g. biatch) have almost become a cottage industry. Profanities are used in the titles and scripts of popular entertainments on a routine basis. Profanity has become inescapable. Etiquetteer rather longs for the curtain of asterisks that, while not really protecting us from the words themselves, at least protected us from actually seeing them.

This hasn’t just been due to the work of comics who “work blue” (and who are killingly funny). Indeed, Etiquetteer’s first encounter with casual profanity was seeing a “B*tch! B*tch! B*tch!” notepad at a gift shop in 1977, which means it must have been going on much longer. The beginning might be the use of the most necessary profanity ever, Rhett Butler’s “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” in Gone With the Wind. The phrase, the word, so completely defined the situation and the character that producer David O. Selznick fought the censors to keep it.

But the key to its effectiveness was its necessity! How many of us ask if profanity is necessary to the points we need to make, to the situations we need to describe, the emotions we need to express? Etiquetteer invites you, dear readers, to consider your own use of profanity in daily life. While profane words are often interjected in the heat of passionate discourse, might we not find a way to ask ourselves if they help or harm the situation?

What the events of last week showed us was that there’s a little-discussed double standard in American society, a group held to a higher standard than other citzens: leaders. Americans still expect leaders to behave better than other citizens, so that we can look up to them and use them as good examples and sources of pride. President Trump has consistently failed to behave to a higher standard. His comment cannot be trivialized as merely “he said a dirty word.” He expressed an abhorrent opinion using the most debased language. How on earth is it possible to look up to a man who refers to allied nations with a vulgar term for an orifice? And how on earth can anyone who believes that courtesy is important in daily life excuse it?

Does it justify a profane response, as Patti Lupone’s profane description of the President at the Tony Awards a couple days after the story broke? Etiquetteer would suggest that it doesn’t, even though a great many people share her opinion. Name-calling isn’t helping the situation.

Does it justify the press quoting the President accurately? News outlets have handled this in various ways. Some have used the word, others have used an abbreviated version (“S-hole”) others have used words to describe the word (e.g. “vulgar”), and still others have used the word, but downplayed it by burying it in their stories as much as possible. With the means of communication available in the 21st century, it might be naive to believe that “family newspaper” standards can still be applied. Etiquetteer can only be saddened that the national situation has come to the point where a major story about a sitting President concerns using a profanity to refer to allies.*

Freedom of Speech remains the greatest of American freedoms. To Etiquetteer that means that that freedom should be used responsibly**. More often than not, profanity does not contribute to responsible use of free speech.

Postscript: Now, those of you who know That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much personally may feel you’ve detected the Sulfurous Odor of Hypocrisy about this column. Everyone knows That Mr. Dimmick swears like a trooper with little provocation, and has since his Treacherous Teens. Etiquetteer is going to allow him to tell you himself about some Instances of Profanity that Did Not Help - but not today.

*A brief article on previous Presidential use of profanity may be found in Rolling Stone.

**Actually, Etiquetteer means that that freedom should be used with Perfect Propriety, but Etiquetteer also recognizes that true Freedom of Speech means the freedom to speak Improperly.