Wednesday, July 3, 2013
Talking dirty in Rockefeller Chapel
"Moist" will be an obscenity in the future. Or so Jason Riggle, associate professor of linguistics, told several hundred parents and students attending a day-long open house at the University of Chicago last April. I was there because my 17-year-old wanted to kick the tires of the school. A variety of sample classes were offered, and I attended Riggle's class on the anatomy of swears. Being a writer, I have a professional interest.
Riggle appeared before his audience in a white lab coat—as if he had just arrived from the frontiers of science—and casually, almost as if talking to himself, began lecturing about the ever changing landscape of taboo language.
"Swearing is natural and people freaking out about it is totally natural," he said, playing a recording of the garbled 1963 hit "Louie Louie," by the Kingsmen, displaying some of the filthy lyrics that the public imagined they heard, then summarizing the intense, almost insane official reaction, including an 18-month FBI probe.
The rise of technology has been a boon for his field—Google Books allowed him to trace "motherfucker" through 100 years of publishing. He flashed a chart showing increased usage of "fuck," "fucking" and "shit."
"Toto," I said to myself—my teen was gone, having opted for a class on Vietnam—"we're not in Kansas anymore." I don't know which was more eyebrow-raising: that a professor was giving this off-color presentation in the magnificent medieval cathedral-like setting of Rockefeller Chapel. Or that the University of Chicago chose this particular class to present. The idea that the frank subject matter might be off-putting to potential customers seemed a relic of some hazy yesteryear, and I felt slightly embarrassed even posing the question, mentally. I wasn't offended; I didn't even mind. It just seemed odd.
Not to be too hard on myself. The shifting landscape of obscenity is difficult to navigate because "it changes all the time," Riggle said.
For instance, "oriental." Not long ago it was a neutral adjective evoking a certain part of the world—now the preferred adjective is "Asian," and "oriental" smacks of colonialism and condescension and is well on its way to being an insult.
"Oriental" I don't mind losing. I'm a little more conflicted about "moist." All my associations with "moist" are positive—moist towelettes, moist cake. No matter. The professor assured us that, according to his research, "moist" will be increasingly linked to the nether regions of excited ladies, the way "gay" lost its sense of cavorting joy long ago and became wedded to sexuality.
Myself, I'd have gone with "damp." But maybe that word is too general purpose. If "damp" became a a sexual taboo word, what we would call basements after a hard rain?
Word change is generational—my boys immediately object if I slip and use "oriental." But my parents don't. Meanings linger, and word usage can haunt you. Former Food Network star Paula Deen didn't even need to use a certain racial slur—all she had to do was admit she once used it, years ago, for her career to shatter like a glass Christmas ornament hit by a brick.
Okay, in Deen's case, it's more complicated than that—a variety of jaw-dropping lapses, though most were committed, not by her, but relatives and employees, aggregated in one lawsuit. Yet what caught the public's attention was that word.
Certain bad words you can repeat with impunity. "Fuck" is sung from Broadway stages. I noticed that Thomas Dyja uses it repeatedly in his carefully-researched, indexed, footnoted history about Chicago in mid-century, The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream, not just in quotations, but in his authorial voice. Simone de Beauvoir hung around with Nelson Algren because he was "a brilliant, sensitive man who loved to fuck." That strikes me as something new.
"Fuck is the best word," Riggle enthused at the University of Chicago, "because it means everything. 'I was fucking furious.' 'I lost my fucking laptop...'"
Certain words you can't say, though, even in the dirty words lecture. Riggle avoided the word that got Deen in so much trouble, at the moment the most toxic obscenity in the English language, unique, quarantined in a category by itself.
Should it be? I don't think so. This utter radioactivity of what people call—timidly, in my view—"the n-word" is fairly new. As recently as 2009, I thought it could be published in a daily newspaper, when I wrote a column about the racial aspects of "Porgy & Bess" and tried to mention exactly what word lyricist Ira Gershwin cut from the opera in 1954. No go. We had to deploy fig leaf dashes: "n----," as if seeing the word uncloaked would sear the eyes of the reader.
I don't believe it. Nobody seems to mind when black entertainers say and sing and shout the word. So it isn't so much the offending word, itself, as the people using it, a complex socio-racial dynamic that could keep a dozen academics like Riggle busy.
Originally, I uttered the word itself two paragraphs above—once, as a protest of sorts, to insist that it can still be used, that context still matters. But doing that seemed like handing a cudgel to potential enemies and lowering my head for the blow. Making it too easy for them. And then maybe I'd be cashiered, too, like Paula Deen, gibbering apologies and explanations as I'm duckwalked away from my career, weeping. So I removed it. Is that respect? Or is that timidity? You lose either way.
A strange game. Even if you could obliterate the offending word—and you can't—it would neither repair the past nor improve the future. Some sensitive souls might feel more comfortable, but I'm not convinced that is a good thing. The past is often a bad place; it shouldn't make us comfortable to contemplate it. We whitewash history at our peril.
Our brains are machines for language, and since words are the gears of that language, it makes sense that humans should jam their fingers into them with all the clumsy irrationality we bring to everything else. Riggle could utter all the "fucks" and "shits" he liked in Rockefeller Chapel. Paula Deen couldn't admit to having used a certain racial epithet in the past—ironically—not because it's obscene, but because it's racial, race being the third rail of American life. Not because we care so much about race but, ironically, because we don't. Her blunder rudely called attention to the big problem we prefer to ignore. Besides, Deen wasn't hounded out of her livelihood by black outrage but by corporate cowardice. Wal-Mart might not be able to cure its own institutional racism, but it sure can fire Paula Deen, as if you need moral purity to force feed sticks of butter down the throat of an ever-fatter nation.
The whole exaggerated reaction is transference, the outrage that should be put on real problems but isn't, because they're too real, too unmanageable. Society shrugs as black children are gunned down almost daily on the South and West sides of Chicago. Entire communities fester in dysfunction and ruin. But we get into a lather over an offensive word.
That too is expected. Riggle explained how obscenity is bound up in the body's limbic system, hardwired into the left side of the brain.
"Entire phrases are stored, like motive action, like kicking or punching," said Riggle. "We are built to swear, literally."
People who have had massive strokes and can't otherwise speak, he said, can still rattle off strings of obscenities, almost as a physical reflex. Our minds can be dying, but they can still cuss. Or react to cussing, which must involve a similar automatic response. We just can't stop ourselves.