I watched a filthy video the other day. It was made by my twin 12-year-old granddaughters. They made a video with their iPhones, a giant doll house and a bunch of their dolls. The scenario was not unusual, but the dialog was filled with four- and 12-letter words, often tangentially referencing the sacred institution of motherhood, and it was hilarious.
I doubt they understood most of the words they studded their screenplay with, and sometimes the words were used in ways that didn’t actually make sense. But they are words they have heard and words they understand are not used in polite company. Their mother has given them permission to use such words once a week on “Cussing Day.” It gets it out of their system. We hope.
At any rate, they reveled in them, spitting them out in the voice-over dialog like tobacco shots into a cuspidor. It was simultaneously shocking and cute. Mostly, it was funny.
But it made me worry about the state of cussing in America.
From bumper stickers to sitcoms, America is suffering an epidemic of nasty language. It is on TV, on ”shock” radio, in every best-selling novel. Stand-up comics make their reputations with it. From Nixon transcripts to Dick Cheney on the Senate floor, you can hardly escape a herd of discouraging words.
What is discouraging is not the words themselves, which are wonderfully functional, but the dilution of overuse.
Four-letter words are a treasure of the English language. They have the abrupt, plosive power of Anglo-Saxon, the redolent, atavistic force of Stone Age life breaking out of the grave to horrify the faint-eared. They are ruddy survivors of that time before the Latin invasion of the language in 1066.
Our language needs the ability to shock, and our four-letter heritage has done an admirable job until recently. Now they are endangered.
No, they are not dying out, like some verbal snail darter; they are everywhere, but they are enfeebled. When mothers show up at K mart trailing a half-dozen kids all in T-shirts with four-letter slogans printed on them, those slogans no longer mean anything. They might as well say ”Drink Coca-Cola.”
In their way, four-letter words are sacred. They need to have the awe of taboo around them. If a good, punchy epithet doesn’t make the ears of a schoolteacher turn red and heat up in embarrassment, what good is it?
Historically, it’s the difference between Lenny Bruce and Andrew Dice Clay. Bruce meant to shock you with his four-letter punch lines. He was making a point with them.
For Clay, the expletives were little more than shibboleths, letting you in his ”club.” And they don’t shock, they glut. After five minutes, you no longer hear them; they disappear like so many ”uhs,” ”likes” and ”y’knows” — the background noise of not-very-articulate conversation.
When George Carlin used those words, they had bite.
In this, the fate of the rougher language of our mother tongue has become much like that of organized religion: What once engendered the fear of eternal damnation now has become for some a Sunday social club and for others a 12-step program for ‘getting in harmony with the universe.”
When the deity begins to sound like Andrew Weil and an undeleted expletive cannot scare even little children, what power is left in the universe?
Yet, we will always have expletives: There is a primal need for them. But if we lose our Anglo-Saxon linguistic heritage, we will be forced to use Latinized, bureaucratic curses.
To forestall that, we need to conserve what juice is left in our swear words.
As for me, I would like to see less obscenity in American culture, not because I want to offend less, but because I want to offend more.