We’re delighted to bring you a guest post by Michael Adams, Professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington and past president of the Dictionary Society of North America. Adams specializes in lexicography, slang, and the history of English. He is the author of Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon (2003), Slang: The People’s Poetry (2009), From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages (2011), and In Praise of Profanity (2016). You can expect that last one to reappear here sooner or later.
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Donald Trump swears a lot, perhaps more than any other major presidential candidate in history. I’m not sure that should bother us. Most Americans swear now and then and plenty of us swear more than Mr. Trump swears during his public appearances. I have no idea how much he swears in private; I’m pretty sure it’s none of my damned business.
His supporters like his swearing, even if they don’t approve of it. For one thing, because most of us swear, when Mr. Trump swears, he sounds more like us than he would if he didn’t, and we like our politicians to sound like us, though I’m not really sure what that means. I do know that Adlai Stevenson and Al Gore didn’t sound like enough people, so they lost big elections. I’m pretty sure they both lost.
One person Mr. Trump doesn’t sound like is President Barack Obama. I’m pretty sure there are Americans out there who would find it reassuring not to have a polite president who often sounds like a professor. It probably also has something to do with race. I think it would bother the people I have in mind if a Black presidential candidate swore a blue streak. They don’t want Black people sounding like them, or they don’t want to sound like Black people — I’m not sure which, but it’s got something to do with privilege, the privilege of white folks who don’t sound like professors to say whatever the hell comes to mind, even if it’s not politically correct.
Because, as Mr. Trump tells us, “the big problem this country has is being politically correct.” He said that. He’s said it a lot. He’s said it almost as much as he swears. A surprising number of people believe him. A Rasmussen Report poll conducted in August, 2015, reported that 71% of Americans agree. A quick look around suggests lots of other challenges, so many challenges that it’s hard to tell which is the big problem. It’s hard for me; it’s not hard for Mr. Trump. Well, nothing is hard for Mr. Trump. Fuckin’-A.
When Mr. Trump swears, some people hear swearing, or maybe all people hear swearing, but that’s not all it is — swearing isn’t the only thing he’s doing when he swears. He’s also flouting political correctness. Some people who approve of Mr. Trump don’t approve of his swearing — they believe swearing is just wrong — and if it were anyone else, they’d clean his mouth out with soap. But they’re glad he swears, because even if it’s swearing, it’s also flouting political correctness.
When National Public Radio reporters interview Trump supporters and the supporters say they wish he wouldn’t swear but actually they’re glad he does — because political correctness — it sounds like a contradiction. Actually, it’s a fine-grained linguistic distinction between a sign and what it signifies. When I eat bratwurst — which is always too big for the bun — and put too much chipotle ketchup on it and try to eat it while I’m watching television and I bite into it and ketchup drops onto my t-shirt and I say “Shit!” I don’t mean there’s excrement on my t-shirt. I don’t even mean ketchup is on my t-shirt. I just mean I’m really frustrated because that stain is never going to come out. I say “Shit!” but it’s not the same shit as shit ‘excrement’, or the –shit in apeshit ‘crazy’, or the shit– in shithead ‘idiot’ or shitfaced ‘drunk’ — same sign, different significations. I mean, WTF, NPR?
So, when Mr. Trump says of American corporations that relocate overseas to take advantage of favorable tax rates that they can go fuck themselves, you may think he’s swearing, but what he’s really saying is, “I agree publicly with all of you who say privately that they should go fuck themselves, because fuck political correctness.” When he says that if he becomes president he’ll bomb the shit out of the Islamic State, he may mean that he’ll bomb ISIS until it’s gone, sure, he might mean that, but he also means he doesn’t give a shit about people who think he shouldn’t say shit and other politically incorrect things they think he shouldn’t say or do.
Lots of presidents have sworn on more than the Inaugural Bible and the Constitution. Harry S. Truman was known to swear, and so were Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. George W. Bush swears and Dick Cheney swears, and they’ve both been caught swearing. John Kerry has sworn into the microphone by accident, too, but he lost when he ran for the presidency, which some think goes to show that you can’t swear while campaigning. It’s inappropriate. Think of the children. Swearing while campaigning is politically incorrect, and you can’t be politically incorrect if you want to be President of the United States.
But Mr. Trump can swear. And I’d rather he swear, so that we know what he really thinks. Because if candidates are merely being polite while campaigning, if they swear all the time before and after the elections, then they are just lying about themselves during the campaign, and I don’t think candidates should lie even more than I don’t think they should swear.
Swearing is a great way to set up Secretary Clinton in the general election, because Americans who support Mr. Trump and applaud his swearing won’t put up with swearing from a woman any more than from a Black man, at least not in public. Privately, Secretary Clinton swears, but I don’t know if she swears a lot. I’m pretty sure it’s none of my damned business. Detractors will use it against her. Take that, Hillary Clinton who wants to be the first woman President of the United States, you are not allowed to be an asshole like Mr. Trump, because you embody political correctness — you are the big problem this country has. I’m pretty sure that’s how Mr. Trump and his followers feel.
As a rule of thumb, when people argue about whether language is appropriate or someone’s grammar is correct, they’re probably not really arguing about language. In the case of swearing, we’re worried about decency or manners and the validity of social relations that manners support or — from another point of view — impose or enforce. Trump’s manners? Let me tell you something about Trump’s manners. They’re terrible. They’re disgusting. They’re a disgrace. He should be in prison for those manners. If I’m ever elected president, I’m going to bomb the shit out of Donald Trump’s manners, you can be sure of that. Make no mistake. In the meantime, Trump’s swearing is a distraction and it’s a proxy for arguments about class, distribution of wealth, race, women’s reproductive rights, political correctness, ethnicity, immigration, you name it — anyway, something we’re unwilling to confront directly because we’re unwilling to love our neighbors as ourselves. I’m pretty sure that’s the big problem this country has.