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September 15, 1958 - Image 10

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The Art of Profanity Re-examined
Americans Swear Freely but with Little Imagination or Vigor
By Dale McGhee

"Profanity is not an Amer;- t
can art. The chief national
reliances are still hell and
damn, both of them badly
shopworn. To support them
we have nothing properly de-
scribable as a vocabulary of
indecency. Our maid-of-all-
work in that department is
s.o.b., which seems as pale andr
ineffectual to a Slav or a LatinI
as fudge does to us."
-H. L. Meneken -"
PROFANITY, swearing, cussing,t
imprecation, malediction, call r
it what you will, is here to stay.
Although the topic is rarely dis-
cussed publicly except from church
pulpits, profanity has prospered, in
volume if not in quality, through-
out the history of man.
Virtually everyone swears. Even4
the most pious Baptist deacon may or "dang it to blazes," or even "gee tive and indiscriminate about their
be heard, upon occasion, to ex- whiz," all of which are bootlegged profanity.
plode with a well directed "darn," mutations of language that would
earn any grade school urchin a IN SUNDRY AGES past profanity.
Dale McGhee is a mild- mouthful of Lifebouy. flourished as an art. This is not
mannered person who has been But while modern Americans to imply that the powers-that-
trying to improve the art of swear with all the fluency of their were didn't place taboos on
since he learned to forebearers, it is indeed lamentable naughty talk, but men neverthe-
profanity that they swear so poorly. Ameri- less took pride in their ability to
swear many years ago. cans, in fact occidentals in gen- deliver an oratorical blitz in unique
eral, couldn't be more unimagina- and effective terms.

In the Western world this pe- namic, profanity has become a
jorative art probably had two degenerate throwback in a stag-
peaks. Late in the Elizabethan nant rut somewhat less effective
Age, swearing reached a peak of than cave man's cursory grunts.
grandeous baroque floridness. It Two remants of the art may be
might or might not be directed found on the world scene today;
swearing, but in either case it was the Orient and Germany.
elaborate swearing, and often The Oriental bases his profanity
lengthy. largely on animals and ancestors.
Any competent patron of any Since most Oriental cultures still
competent English pub or French
oubrage could, should occasion
arise, spend a good hour raking
every member of your paternal
ancestry, and having exhausted
that, turn to your maternal line-
age, climaxing it all by directly
relating you to a fourth century I
infidel who had mated with a
syphlitic bullfrog.

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IN THE LATE eighteenth century
swearing reached a peak of
deliberation, subtlety and purpose-
fulness. Robert Graves pointed out
in his lengthy essay on profanity
that in this period "swearing as an
assault on a coffee-house rival and
introductory to a duel demanded
a nice refinement of oratorical
blasphemy; as the contemporary
sermon demanded a nice refine-
ment of oratorical eulogy."
But about this time the fuse of
the Industrial Revolution got
started and everyone became so
involved in rigging together gears
and steam engines, they couldn't
take the time to dream up new
ways to swear. And thus the art
began to wane and was last seen
heading for oblivion along with
the American frontier.
What the American culture is
left with is a tragically thin and
banal assortment of leftovers: five
0.
or six four-letter epithets which
comprise virtually our entire pro-
fane vocabulary.-
Oh, certainly, we all know more
than six swear words, most of them
crude, but only a few are com-
monly used. Catharsis of the na-
tional emotions is chiefly depend-
ent upon hell and damn, both used
and reused to the point of in-
sipidness.
These few curses which are the
best we can come up with, are not
only pointless and often vulgar,
but they have lost all the color,
ferver, and effectivness they once
held. In short, they no longer have
any sis-boom-bah.
Time was when someone called
you an sob. you were ready for a
fight, since he was insulting your
mother, but today it's just another
bland epithet you toss in between
weakly formulated thoughts to
keep your'audience from yawning,
which he may well do anyway,
AMERICANS don't lack the im-
aginative powers to swear with
originality. Neither are they too
lazy or apathetic. Worse yet: most
are totally unaware that they
could be swearing any better.
While every other art has con-
tinued to evolve and remain dy-

retain strong traditions concern-
ing ancestry and the animal king-
dom, curses drawn from these
areas are especially meaningful.
A Chinese who is called a son
of a turtle is greatly insulted, be-
cause of a folk belief that the
turtle commits incest.
G ERMANS are little more im-
aginative about their swearing
than Americans, but they do hold
the advantage of a gutteral lan-
guage that sounds effective,
whether, the words are nasty or
not. Furthermore, many Germans
have a favorite habit or tying to-
gether several words into one long
ringing epithet.
"Himmelkreutzdonnerwetterpot-
ztausandhimmelsterundgrandaten-
sakrament" is actually about as
strong as "jumpingjeeperscauli-
flowerstringbeansdirtydarnpigs-
eyehorsedung," but it sounds much
worse in German.
Teenage slang comes as near as
anything to preserving this coun-
try's tie with the art of profanity.
American teenagers juggle words
around in a way that is as con-
temporary as the latest sputnick.
But slang is not profanity, and
teenagers are no better than the
rest of the nation about swearing.
How did the sparkle disappear
from swearing? Burges Johnson
proposed in his book The Lost Art
of Profanity that the essence of
good swearing is closely linked
with belief in magic and mystery.
WITH THE RISE of science and
industry, all this magic and
mystery was pooh-poohed out of
profanity, leaving a thin shell of
words without any vim, vigor, and
get-up-and-go.
Psychologically, the power of
profanity is related to ego-involve-
ment. If you can pigeonhole some-
one into a disreputable category,
he immediately senses a blow to
his self-esteem and a threat of
ostracism.
But most people seldom, if ever,
take our skeletal vocabulary of
cussing very seriously. Indiscrimi-
nate use has left it so threadbare
that it has lost most of this power
of ego threat.
Well, now that we all agree that
the state of profanity is penny-
poor, what can we do about it?
One thing is certain: we can't
(Concluded onPage i)

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