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March 31, 2005

Expletives not deleted

These days, I've been listening to a CD version of Michael Lewis's book Moneyball with my 13-year-old son when I drive him to school. It's a wonderful book, which I read avidly in hardcover a year ago. But it also contains a lot of salty language; its "nutrition facts" state that it provides 70% of your daily requirement of the F-word and 45% of your daily requirement of the S-word. I suspect my son finds those words exciting, because we have a firm rule at home that no one may use bad language. (I don't even want the kids to say "That sucks!" so I'm really swimming against the current. I urge them to say instead that it "sucks eggs" -- which leads to some serious eye-rolling by my teenaged daughter.) I'm pretty careful not to use that language myself, at least when I'm not alone, and you'll notice I don't use it on this blog, another example of swimming against the current. Why is it that everyone today is so meretricious in using these words? Are our kids going to be so numbed to this language that they won't even realize that there are places where you should hold your tongue?

I was just thinking these thoughts this morning, as a matter of fact, so it was an interesting coincidence that Cathy Seipp has a piece at National Review Online today called "Cuss and Effect: Can people speak any more without the f-word?" The anecdote she uses to begin the piece illustrates my concerns perfectly:

One night at the opera with my father, I noticed that the respectable-looking, rather dowdy middle-aged couple sitting next to me began to almost vibrate with excitement when the curtain rose. Evidently the set struck them as rather spectacular.

"Oh, this is gonna be so f***ing great!" exclaimed the wife to her husband, who nodded benignly in agreement. While I was happy for them and their enthusiasm, I couldn't help but wonder: Since when did the f-word become so acceptable in what used to be called polite society that we now can even hear it at the opera?
Or consider some of her other anecdotes:
Then there was the afternoon in the local dog park, when I happened to witness a woman politely suggest to another woman — whose large and aggressive male German shepherd was bothering all the other dogs — that she might consider either neutering the animal or keeping it on a leash. She got called the b-word for her trouble, making me regret, as I often do these days, the disappearance of the useful old expression "Well, I never!"

And again I wondered why almost every public altercation with strangers (at least if you're female) now regularly includes the b-word, which I suppose is at least better than the c-word, recently flung my way by a couple of old ladies in the venerable Los Angeles Farmers Market. (They were angry that I wouldn't let them appropriate a chair, which I needed, from my table.) And so it goes, which is why I can't get too worked up about the supposedly terrifying FCC "clampdown," as it's always called. If one side effect is that public discourse fades to a slightly paler shade of blue — although so far I don't see any sign of this — that would be fine by me, and I don't think I'm generally considered a prude.
I agree that this public cussing has gone much too far. It's not that I want to punish people for vulgarity; after all, a choice epithet can be very satisfying if used in appropriate company (or, better yet, in one's own company). In some situations, it can even be funny. Here, for example, is a post-Schiavo living will written by Kevin McGehee at his blog Yippee-Ki-Yay, which makes extensive use of these words and is very funny at the same time.

Some years ago, when my oldest son was in kindergarten, he informed my wife that a girl in his class had told him that kids on the bus use really bad words. My wife said, "Oh, really?" He told her, "Yes, they use the S-word and the D-word." My wife said, "I see . . ." He said, "Stupid and Dumb. And they also use the S-H-word." Now my wife was getting nervous. She said, "Really, what word was that?" He answered, "Shut up!"