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.


  1. In the interest of sticking with the culinary reference (Deen), and so as not to use the soon-to-become obscenity, You Sir, are The Duncan Hines of editorial writing! It's good to be able to read your work regularly.... again. Great piece.... again.

  2. The scary thing is, I know who you're referring to. At least I hope you mean Duncan Hines, the food writer, and not Duncan Hines, the cake mix. Though the cake mix can be surprisingly good, despite expectations, so I suppose it wouldn't be bad to be compared to either. Thanks.

  3. soon the entire alphabet will be at stake ---- letters can be used as lethal weapons when strung together as hurtful words. seriously why cant we learn to be civil to one another swear when we want to and focus on the big picture. yes there are stupid racist people who will go to their grave as haters. as a society lets try to "smack down" intolerence. carry on

  4. Once again a searing insight into everyday life, when I first started reading your columns, I was amazed at how you took life, and spun it 180 degrees and helped me to see another side. It is only now, that I realize, probably due to the 7 words you can't say on television bit, that you are to writing what George Carlin was to comedy. Observational, enlightening and always thought provoking. Bravo Neil, another great job.

    1. Thanks Jim. The interesting thing about this column is that. originally, I fully planned on using the n-word, because I can, but when push came to shove, either chickened out, or grew up, or some other thing. I just decided it would distract from my argument.

  5. It's good to be reading you again, Neil. I just did not want to have to read you in what's left of the Sun-Times.

    1. Now Henry, remember I work there. I admit the paper looks thin on some days, but they're trying to survive in a terrible journalistic environment. Between our troubles and the Tribune's disastrous financial situation, Chicago could end up with no newspaper at all, and that would be bad. Even though I'm doing this blog independently, that doesn't mean I'm not a supporter of the paper. There's a method behind their madness -- or so I fervently hope.

  6. Good column by Steinberg. I generally agree with what he said.

    I wonder, however, if it is just not worth the blowback to innocently use terms like “niggardly” and “call a spade a spade” around African-Americans. Furthermore, sometimes the use is not innocent. The sinister use comes from the “I’m so clever” people -- such as in “I’m so Pretty” from West Side Story.

    Finally there are the poseurs that substitute “shock” for “substance.” Even when “shock” begins to overwhelm” substance” – the writer begins to fail.

  7. Some people are innocent -- or if you prefer ignorant -- of these things. I have a young co-worker who announced her intention to dress as Michelle Obama for Halloween, and I had to laboriously explain that putting on blackface and coming to work was a Bad Idea. She hadn't a clue. To me, anyone sophisticated enough to use the word "nigardly" also should know that it strays close to the (wrongly, in my view) forbidden word. To "call a spade a spade" goes back to Roman times and of course refers to garden tools, and I guess I could see a situation where a person uses it innocently -- but then you'd have to question the motives of someone who took offense at that. I sometimes use "boy" as an exclamation, as in "oh boy, it's hot" and have more than once said that to a black colleague and then caught myself, holding my breath, to see if he thought I was addressing him that way -- "Boy, it's hot." I think that's over-sensitivity on my part, since nobody ever seems to take it the wrong way. To me, strong reactions to innocent mistakes is bad, because it discourages people from talking about these things.

  8. I love that you call your blog a column - old habits die hard!
    "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...". BINGO! The argument that 'black people can use it amongst themselves, so why can't everyone use it', is ridiculous. The connotative difference between a black person calling another black person "nigger" and a white person calling a black person "nigger" is immense and absolutely undeniable - as well it should be.
    LOVE reading you again on a regular basis - column or blog!

  9. As Neil Steinberg said -- his use of “goddamn” is a filter. The same can be said for the other shock words he uses in the above column.

    But it is a filter that works both ways. When I see a shock word in a formal setting I think – either the speaker or writer is very smart or a lazy fool – and we shall soon find out.

    Yep – Steinberg got my attention with these shock words – and so far he has proven to be very smart.

  10. Watch a program like Dexter and you will hear "jesus fucking christ" so many times and yet no one complains. Watch any mob inspired movie and you"ll hear many references to waps, kikes, miks, spics, etc. no one complains. Shock words only work when we let them work. How long before friggan, freakin and "f word" take on the real intended meaning. I cringe when I hear a youngster use friggan and freakin and adults say nothing. I hear these words everygoddamday and don't complain!

  11. Good column. The idea of hearing these obscenities in Rockefeller Chapel is a little disconcerting, though.

    The title of your blog reminds me of the late Bill Buckley's book "Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription", which was a note he wrote to a disgruntled subscriber.

    Re Edward Said, the Prologue to his screed "Orientalism" is one of the most popular required readings for undergraduates. I never thought much of the guy and I've read two books that really hack him for distortions/omissions, not to mention a Commentary article about ten years back called "In My Father's House" that really raked him over the coals. He and Bernard Lewis were the bitterest of enemies, as NU's Carl Petry once remarked to me.

  12. It occurred to me a while ago that "slave driver" is probably also a term that can no longer be used casually. Language is a minefield.

  13. Neil- I'm thrilled you've started this blog and look forward to more interesting and thought-provoking stuff, as well as the chance to interact with you and your readers. Good entry today, which makes you 3-for-3 on EGDD, in my book.

    My only beef leads me to a suggestion for you and your readers.

    The phrase "We're not in Kansas anymore" and variations on it, such as your use of "We're not in Northbrook anymore" in your most recent S/T column, have become overused to the point of hackney-hood, in my observation and opinion. The verbatim quote or some riff on it is in countless TV shows and movies, and I hear it in conversation more and more. It's to the point I cringe when I hear it, or even when I sense it's coming.

    If I'm at all off-base here, or completely full of shit (nod to today's blog entry), please feel free to let me know, but I hope I'm not the only one who would like to see the "Kansas" quote and similar takes on it given a long, long rest.

  14. No Bill, you make a good point. Though in my defense, I should mention that I was quoting something I thought or said at the moment, and thus was confined by actuality. As a regular person, more or less, I have all the tired, "nice day today" thoughts that everyone else has. Were the apocalypse to unfold before me, I would think, "Gee, this is just like a movie" and if later -- well, there would be no later, but work with me -- I tried to embroider that thought into something artful, I would be affecting a pose. Oliver Sachs does that, quoting Wittgenstein in his mind as he tumbles off a cliff, while me and most people would be thinking, "Oh shit!" That said, I will try to dial back on the "We're no in ... anymore" trope. It is tired. Thanks again.

  15. "and if later -- well, there would be no later, but work with me -- " That's funny. Well played, sir!

  16. Edward Said was one of my professors in college and he was brilliant, precise, and above all cant. I can't tell if the commenter above has actually read anything Said ever wrote, but for some reason I doubt it since all he references are his critics. Said was prickly, demanding, and a consummate scholar who never let his politics into the classroom. Every lecture left me swirling and drove me and everyone else in the class towards deeper, harder, broader modes of thinking. Too bad the likes of Buckley and Lewis have taken us so often in the other direction....

  17. Neil your Blog Photo's are great. Nice Job with the phone!

  18. Great column Neil. You should reprise it in EGDD.

    The allusion turning 'moist' into an obscenity is not entirely new. The sometimes odious Earl of Chesterfield, in one of his letters to his son, advised the young man that he could make a maiden wet by telling her he loved her.



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