Sunday, November 29, 2015

The goddamn birds singing

     The New York Times served up a front page story Saturday  "Foul-Mouthed And Proud of It On the '16 Trail," about how the herd of Republican presidential candidates are swearing far more than has ever been previously heard in public from those who would occupy the White House.
    The words that shocked us when Nixon muttered them on transcripts of the White House tapes more than 40 years ago are now being blithely tossed out to crowds that cheer instead of gasp.
     Not that the Times said that. Or quoted any of the actual words being used by these candidates. Not directly. Campaigning may have changed, but journalism has not, alas, not enough, and being what is still called "a family newspaper" by the few who refer to newspapers at all, the Times did not reproduce the words and phrases it was writing about, falling back on a variety of stale euphemisms and twee winks. Thus Rand Paul calling any trade-off between liberty and security "bullshit" was rendered strangely as "'bull' before adding a syllable" and Mario Rubio called something "'political B.S. without the abbreviation."   The article vaguely referred to "four-letter words," "dirty words," "provocative remarks" and my favorite, "saltiness." 
     Let me guess. When you read "bullshit" in the paragraph above, your hands did not fly to your cheeks as you uttered a tiny, "Oh my!" People who get worked up over obscenity, I have found, tend to be residents of small towns, blinking at the larger world as if they've never seen it before. A lot of stuff upsets them.
     Odd to cater to isolated small-town naifs as your target audience. Only a few weeks ago, the Times felt justified including a chunky virtual reality viewing device with the Sunday paper. Given that expensive and probably fruitless effort, you'd think that expanding their permitted vocabularies to include a few common words most adults hear and utter every day, in conversation and on-line, would be a no-brainer. 
     But like network television, newspapers linger in the fading past, allowing themselves to be held prisoner by a tiny coterie of complainers.
    The Times speculates as to why so many curse words are being heard. Aping Donald Trump for starters — though no obscene word could touch the obscenity of the thoughts being expressed, which are also parroted widely. Or perhaps "a play for machismo ... a signal of vitality, rawness, a willingness to break through the din."
     I think that last reason was why I named this blog "Every goddamn day" — to stick out from the clutter while expressing a sense of who I am and what it is this thing is supposed to do. 
    When the blog was in its early days I got the occasional complaint. Now the only difficulty is self-generated, in conversation, through an excess of politeness. I sometimes find myself blushing to actually utter it -- I was talking Saturday with a bright young member of a Baptist church, preparing an apartment in West Rogers Park for some Burmese refugees arriving later in the week. We were talking about the national mood regarding refugees, and I suggested she read a certain column I had written on the topic, and since the Sun-Times web site is so, ah, problematic, I said she could look it up on my personal blog, "Every ... er... every gah..." and then gently explained the whole genesis of the name. She smiled and seemed to understand—the young are not as easily rattled as we older folks sometimes suspect.
      To be honest, as much as I value the right to use more risque words, where appropriate, I would feel a bit threatened if they fell into wide use and general acceptability, because that would rob them of their surprise and power. When every candidate for comptroller is promising to wipe away the bullshit, when every toddler is shrieking "fuh you, Billy!" as they wrestle over a sippy cup, then David Mamet plays will lose a little of their oomph, and my darts will be blunted.

      The great William Safire, once the Times' resident wordsmith, now sunk in obscurity, includes an entry on  "God damn" in his 1980 "On Language." After slyly bragging that Frank Sinatra insulted him, quoting the singer telling the UPI, "William Safire is a goddamn liar," Safire mourns the merging of the two words into one and, idiosyncratically, decries the final "n" on "damn," which he'd like to remove for two nonsensical reasons: "it's not pronounced anyway" and because, since nothing is being damned, it's more a "whoop of admiration or exasperation." 
    Yet he titles the entry, "God damn," a head-scratching example of a writer failing to adopt the practice even as he urges it upon others.
     Obviously no one listened to Safire, who was laboring under the illusion that star journalists often succumb to: that they're actually directing the river we're all being carried along in.
    The UPI, Safire mentions, urged "goddamn ... should not be used at all unless there is a compelling reason."
     I consider catching attention, projecting edginess, and shooing away the overly pious, all compelling reasons. I hope the Republican presidential candidates are not signaling a general approval of what the Times would call "potty talk," and that their electoral defeat will reverse the trend they started, assuming they've started a trend, and don't exist in some separate cultural hell reserves for candidates.  The politicians can have "bullshit"—it suits them—but I hope they'll leave "goddamn," with its mix of wonder and grumpiness, to me.
    "Lord, thank you," Thomas Lux once ended a poem, gloriously, "for the goddamn birds singing!" Exactly. 


  1. Humorous indeed and gives one something to think about.

  2. 1. When Johnny Carson went on the air in 1962, if someone said "goddammit" on the show, it came out as "godbleepit".
    When he went off the air in 1992, it became "bleepdammit".

    2. I believe it's Norman Mailer's book, "The Naked & The Dead" was forced to have GIs in combat say absurdities such as "Go fug yourself"!

    3. The delightful & apparently apocryphal story of Robert Mitchum on Loretta Young's TV show, being told of that appalling hypocrite's swear box which required a quarter every time someone swore on the set. Mitchum was said to tell Young, "Here's 20 bucks Loretta, now fuck off!"

    So goes the stupidity of prudes!

  3. too funny about Mitchum and par for the course for him

  4. Even though I rarely use it I am all for starting a movement to have the f-word declassified as a swear word. When you consider how many times a day you hear it and how many people incorporate it into every f-ing sentence they utter it would be nice to have it lose its power to shock and/or offend. (It would also be nice if my 12-year-old son thought it was no longer cool to say!)

  5. "Bullshit" is hardly an obscenity, although it is probably true that the GOP pols are using it to be macho like Donald, who I believe has vowed to bomb the shit out of someone. I don't think you will hear any "Goddamning" from them from fear of the evangelicals, and letting loose with one of the carnal or gynecological allusions would too greatly alarm the elders who make up much of their constituency. In any event, it doesn't come naturally. Like what Mark Twain said about women swearing: "they've got the words but they ain't got the music."

    That is no longer true of women, of course, it having been some time since dirty words could come trippingly off only the male tongue. Not a great deal of time. I recall sometime in the 60's the shocked silence that followed a lady in my office telling a co-worker to "fuck off," but yesterday's Sun-Times coverage of the Michigan Avenue demonstrations quoted a little old lady saying she understood why they were demonstrating, but didn't see "why it should keep me from using the ___ing Crate and Barrel restroom."

    The fiction that a lady's hand's as, Neil so cogently put it, must fly to her cheeks in horror when any of the aforementioned words are used. is of course one of long standing, so ancient in fact that the Roman poet Martial, who specialized in naughty lyrics, commented on it in rhyme.

    "To read my book the virgin shy
    May blush (while Brutus standeth by),
    But when he's gone read through what's writ
    And never stain a cheek for it."

    .Concerning another word used in Neil's piece, William Safire may have been a "great" journalist, but I find it hard to forget that he first came to public notice as a speech writer for Richard Nixon and his disgraced VP Spiro Agnew. He also banged the drum for the ill fated invasion of Iraq, predicting, no doubt under the influence of the late Ahmed Chalaby, that our conquering heroes would be greeted as liberators, setting off a wave of democracy in the region.

    Sorry to be going on at such length, but It is an interesting subject about which the usual commenters are silent. Perhaps they're all at worship.

    Tom Evans

  6. I figure, I probably lulled them to sleep.

  7. "Problematic" indeed. Whenever I happen to stumble across the ST website, it is generally followed by a few of the words that are the subject of this column.

  8. I've never really understood what was supposed to be "great" about William Safire. Unless you were being sarcastic.

  9. Republicans are merely pandering to their audience, most of whom swear frequently in public. BFD. But, they'll parrot anyone if it will gain attention and votes.

    My favorite goddamn quote was from the film when I first heard it in the media. Charlton Heston in the original "Planet of the Apes":

    "You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to Hell!"

    This may apply if any of the profane on the right succeed in taking back the White House.

    1. Wendy,,,Thank you for reminding me of the wonderful ending of "Planet of the Apes" movie. A classic, esp. at the time it was made.

    This article focuses on how the conscious and unconscious mind work and in particular, the mind-blowing power of the unconscious mind. It explains how this force can work both for you and against you, depending on your beliefs. A must-read for anyone wanting to be the best they can be in their business and personal lives.

  11. Trump thrives on attention and seeing himself as a victim. The more the press wails, the more he and his nut followers dig in.

  12. My verbally and physically abusive father rarely cursed, but my sainted mother, who wouldn't hurt a fly, swore like a trooper. Go figure. I learned a few choice words from hearing her, but I really learned all the curse words at ten, in day camp, when the park district made us cut down what we kids called "the goddamn weeds" in order to save our suburb a few bucks and free up its employees for other tasks.

    Strangely enough, my Jewish and Italian high school employed a lot of euphemisms that I've never heard used anywhere else. A weakling became a "puppy" instead of a "pussy"...and a screw-up was a "tool" or a even a "simple tool"...which I enjoyed saying until my father pointed out that hammers and saws were also simple tools, and got a lot of work done. The c-word was unknown and that other c-word, the ten-letter one related to oral sex, often led to a fistfight.

    Almost never heard the f-word until I lived in a college dorm populated by New Yorkers, who also liked the as-yet-unknown s-word--as in "This place sucks!" It was only a matter of time...a few more years...before those "Right field stinks!" chants in the Wrigley bleachers had changed forever.

    And when even my fiftysomething parents tried to sound young and hip by freely using the f-word in casual conversation in the late Seventies, not just when they were peeved, its power to shock and offend as an obscenity was mostly gone. It barely qualifies as a swear word anymore, because nearly everyone uses it everywhere, and all the time. Will I be shocked and surprised when our excuse for a POTUS finally utters it on camera? [bleep] no! That's what the networks will do to it.

  13. When I first saw the title of your blog, I was surprised. Funny, though, I was not offended because the g in goddamned was not capitalized. Having attended a Catholic grade school, we were taught to capitalize God, Jesus, and pronouns such as Him when referring to God. Since your goddamned is not capitalized, I took no offense. Crazy, huh? Upon reflection, though, if it were capitalized, it’s highly likely I wouldn’t be offended. I like your writing that much. My grown kids drop the F bomb quite frequently, but not in front of me. Not because I’m a prude but because I don’t care to hear it as often as they like to say it. As far as politicians using expletives on TV, often little ears are tuned in and youngsters don’t have to hear that kind of language so early on. Besides, the English language is extensive and there are words that make the same point as bullshit. At least in my humble opinion.


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