As an antidote to our gloriously joyful sesquicentennial celebrations I was about to bring myself back to earth with a cynical blog on the erosion of Promises, Health Care, the Environment, World Peace, and so on and so forth when I thought, even more cynically, “For Christ’s sake, who the hell cares anymore?”
Then I noticed I had thought the word hell and the name of Christ in the one question.
I got thinking about language and that reminded me that more and more movies now make so much use of the f word there is hardly any space for dialogue. Then I fell to pondering why, some years ago, strong language used to be blasphemous rather than just plain vulgar. No, I thought, it’s worse than that. Strong language is no longer strong – or creatively colourful. It has been dehydrated and ossified into the f word which in turn is used without thought purpose or emotion. Maybe, I thought, the banality of language is a symptom of the erosion of everything else.
I tunneled back into my files and found that almost 30 years ago I had puzzled, rather superficially, over the linguistic difference between blasphemy and vulgarity.
Because this blog started out with the intent of giving a little retrospective on the past, here we go again, with only minuscule editing, from 1988:
Last week I made a plea to reinstate the gentle art of name-calling. Now I ask you to consider the old fashioned art of swearing.
Nobody swears any more.
Oh, sure, we use swear words, but monotonously, with no creativity and with no real sense of words being either indecent or blasphemous.
It was not always so.
When I was a youngster, language was something that had dimension and texture and place. As a preacher’s kid I sat in church every Sunday and heard one kind of Biblical exhortation rolling in splendid tones around the sanctuary. The rhetorical antidote was to be found on weekdays in the sanctuary of the local blacksmith’s shop with its smoke and smells and irate animals and a funnel stuck through the outer wall with a sign saying, “pee here”. There a small boy could hear Old Testament-type incantations re-translated into the vernacular and ornamented with useful vulgarities.
How I’ve longed to be able to recreate some of that spontaneous oratory but, alas, although blessed with an appreciative nature I was cursed with an inadequate memory. But I do remember that the smith, a small man, when giving urgent orders to two-ton animals with sore feet who didn’t speak English had to give some thought to the shape and texture of words and to the tone of delivery.
A very few of those same words can be heard today in almost every walk of life but, alas, they’ve had the meaning flayed out of them by over use and by lack of appreciation.
“Oh s–t,” says the pretty young teenager as she strolls down Main Street, clinging to her boyfriend’s arm, “what the f–k am I going to wear to Mary’s f—–g party.” She is not angry with anyone, is not attempting to motivate anyone, and has no major point to emphasize but the obscenities tumble from the lovely lips like lifeless toads.
I listen to these sweet young assassins of language and my memory goes back in nostalgia to the old stories of medieval chivalry when the hero, finally exasperated beyond all tolerance, would “swear a mighty oath” and seize the battle axe and have at the villains. I never really knew what the mighty oaths could be but figured they had to be even mightier than Mr. McCracken could muster in the smithy, which took some doing.
The swearing of oaths could take many forms, ranging from a devout promise, to outright blasphemies, to simple (and sometimes complex) obscenities. The roundhouse curse, used as a motivator, was a useful tool. (Once, in India, I was pestered by persistent street pedlars until a friend taught me a few choice Hindi expressions that worked like a verbal “Off” — I don’t really want to know what they meant.)
In analyzing my own reaction to words I realize that it is the sexual and scatological obscenities to which I am most sensitized. When reconstructing a sweet young thing’s conversation for a family newspaper I still use hyphens.
On the other hand, even here, I can quite comfortably write a line that says, “My God, what the hell was I supposed to do?” The speaker is obviously not talking to the Almighty so I have therefore used, unblushingly, the ultimate blasphemy, keeping God capitalized so there can be no confusion with lesser gods. Hell, on the other hand, having lost all status, has been further insulted by losing its capital letter.
My guess is that many readers react the same way I do. Does this mean that sex and ordure are more real to us than Heaven and Hell? Bring on the analysts.
As for the jewel-like teenagers with the rotting tongues, I have no solution except to suggest that, having taken all the meaning out of the old four-letter Anglo-Saxon words, they might try substituting Greek and Latin derivatives. Thus the first example would no longer need hyphens and would become, “Oh excrement, what the copulate am I going to wear to Mary’s intercourse party?”
It might jar them into awareness that all words should have a place, a meaning, and a purpose. ♣
But hey, reading that now, three decades later, its casually rhetorical question leaps out at me and it occurs to me that it was, accidentally, a fundamental question. “Does this mean that sex and ordure are more real to us than Heaven and Hell?”
My guess is that for many of the younger generations (and even a portion of my own generation) the answer is, “absolutely”. And then It occurs to me that the lack of strong blasphemous language is a healthy sign and indicates a lessening of the theological grip with its supernatural view of humanity. (For now, let’s not go there.) But the constant and indiscriminate use of vulgar language pared down to a few randomly injected expletives is not a healthy sign. It suggests a kind of mental and verbal bereavement.
Whatever the profanity, I do prefer it to be applied judiciously and with ardent purpose rather than with today’s inarticulate mindlessness.
♣ Item: !@X&!^$@@!!
From: Down Paradox Lane
Lindsay This Week, May 17/88
Copyright © Munroe Scott