Here’s Some Soap For Your Mouth

©2014 By Bob Litton

I am not a puritan nor, I hope, a hypocrite. But I have a rather labyrinthine attitude toward what used to be called “foul language”. I say “used to be” because now four-letter words are not only used by women in general social settings, such as cafes, but by both genders in what used to be the high-toned literary magazines, such as New Yorker and Harper’s. A couple of years ago, New Yorker ran an essay relating the history of off-color words in its pages, how a former editor fought many years against them and how they finally emerged.

The basic argument for printing barnyard language is that it is necessary if the magazines are going to publish fiction and articles — especially stories and poems — that reflect actual day-to-day life. Just as there always are at least two sides to any other issue in life, with both sides bearing at least some validity, the argument cited above has some credence. However, I do not believe its limited validity is sufficient to override the sensibilities of readers who do not use such language and are offended by its presence in articles, stories and poems that are supposed to represent the tolerable side of people, even of villains and femmes fatales.

Now is the time for me to acknowledge that I use profanity, mostly when I get into my pickup truck; it’s really weird how one’s personality can do a 180-degree turn when he grips a steering wheel; good thing those people ahead of me cannot hear what I am saying. But I do not approve of the fact that that I do so, not even in the privacy of my truck. I really wish those words had not been invented.

When I was a young boy and began to perceive the double standard people had toward four-letter words, I wondered what I should do. I eventually concluded that, since people usually cussed only when they are angry about something and often mentioned only the vulgar term for excretion, i.e., something they do not want to touch, I would use the phrase “chicken noodle soup”: a meal item I could not stand (at the time). It did not take long for me to realize that that phrase had two weaknesses: (1) it took too long to utter, especially emphatically; and (2) it totally lacked any connotation of emotional steam.

Over the years since then I have used the popular profanity, but infrequently and preferably when I am alone. A singular trait in my attitude toward others has developed from this personal reticence: I have become very observant of the social occasions and vocabulary of others while they swear. I noticed in air force basic training that several of the other recruits cussed without much call for it; they had nothing to be angry about. I surmised that their behavior must be due to their seeing this training experience as a maturation rite: we were becoming men and should exhibit all the traits of men. During one barracks meeting, I spoke up about my concern and said foul language does not make us men. The flight (air force equivalent of “squadron”) became much more sedate after that. Then one day, I cannot recall what caused it, but something happened that angered me, and I uttered a vulgar exclamation. One of the other airmen, who was nearby, looked at me quizzically and said, “Bob, I thought you didn’t like cussing.”

Going back a little ways, in my senior year of high school I worked as an assistant to an electrician. This fellow’s use of profanity was not only colorful but, in a sense, funny because of its constancy; he seemed to use foul terms as punctuation marks, much as many people use the interjection “uh” or the phrase “you know” with tedious frequency.

But foul language irritates me most when I hear it used by or around women and when I hear it in a loud customer’s conversation in a restaurant. One evening I was sitting at a table in a restaurant in Dallas, trying to enjoy my meal, when I heard this young fellow in a nearby booth tossing out profanity during his conversation with three other people. I sat there and debated with myself whether I should pick up my tea glass and go over and pour the contents on his head. Fortunately, I was sober that night, and the more rational side of me won the debate. However, I left that restaurant shortly afterwards, wondering if I would be able to digest my meal.

Now back to the present day and the national media. I have become a frequent viewer of Comedy Channel’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Each presents a mixture of in-depth news analysis and satirical hyperbole. I like Stewart best because he is not as self-adoring as Colbert and because more of his “news stories” are of greater interest for me personally. However, Stewart has a bad habit of letting his sentences slide into mumblings. On Colbert’s positive column I mark his clear articulateness, sometimes in amazingly extended paragraphs; but he has a bad habit of not letting his guests finish their sentences; he finishes for them, usually twisting their intent to fit his own biases. The irritating fault which both share, however, is their almost continuous dives into every body function from excretion to copulation. I do not like having such language pushed into my face, so nowadays it is with some hesitation that I view those shows.

When I was very young, I heard that a playmate’s mother had washed his mouth out with soap. I wondered whether she had used a liquid soap or a bar and how it tasted, but I never asked. That has been a lifelong fault of mine: being very curious but neglecting to seek answers — at the time. I still wonder if any mother ever actually used soap to clean up her child’s language.


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