Long an admirer of Joseph Mitchell, I take his portrait of A. S. Colborne and his Anti-Profanity League as iconic, though, as the trail of news Colborne left behind him proves, Mitchell’s view was partial and misleading. Colborne was by no means the only American anti-profanity campaigner, and the fact that he wasn’t alone, that anti-profanity activism persists in America today, supports profanity’s expressive power — a vestige of taboo keeps strong language strong. As it turns out, a little anti-profanity goes a long way.
Prompted by my first post about Colborne, Patrick Collins searched Chronicling America and commented on several other anti-profanity movements. Some were charmingly local, others of regional, if not national, scope. Among the former, in Leesburg, Ohio — as reported in The Highland Weekly News (13 December 1882) — “An anti-swearing league ha[d] been formed among the boys of the village.” A few years later — as reported in the The Omaha Daily Bee (21 June 1886) — the Commercial Travelers’ Protective Association placed anti-profanity placards in hotels and restaurants, for the public good, of course, but also to curb the sweary impulses of those very commercial travelers — the motive was less moral than a matter of public relations.
Collins pointed especially to the Reverend Roland Sawyer, whose intrepid crusade against profanity closely resembled Colborne’s. According to his obituary in The Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Herald (10 October 1969), Sawyer’s 95 years were filled with good works: he “served continuously” as a Congregationalist pastor from 1898. From New Hampshire, he lived much of his life in Massachusetts and served 27 years as a state representative. He and President Calvin Coolidge were friends — they met in the Massachusetts legislature — though Coolidge was a Republican and Sawyer started out a Socialist. The obituary overlooks Sawyer’s position on profanity.
But he had one. According to The Saint Paul (Minnesota) Globe (10 January 1904), “he hope[d] to obliterate it.” So, he started a movement. First, according to the Globe, “he […] formulate[d] a simple pledge not to use profanity,” and some local boys signed it. A few years later, “hundreds had signed pledges not to swear,” and Sawyer founded “the first anti-profanity league” in 1902. Two years later, “12,000 members [had] signed pledges in forty states, two territories, Canada, Scotland, England, Ireland, Switzerland, and South Africa.” That amounts to 250 pledgers per venue, on average, with that number further dispersed regionally — it hardly seems the critical mass necessary to obliterate profanity.
Like Colborne, Sawyer and his followers handed out anti-profanity cards. Originally, they distributed tracts and organized sermons against profanity in churches across the land, but “the ordinary man fights shy of the conventional tract,” so cards spread the word more effectively. Sawyer’s approach was mild — “the cards were neither offensive nor priggish” — but the pledge underscored his religious motive: “I, the undersigned […] do hereby resolve to use no more profane language of any kind or strong adjectives of any kind. May the Lord help me to keep my resolve. (Signed) […] Witnessed by Roland Douglas Sawyer. May the Lord help her to keep it. May Jesus help her. Virgin Mary bless her.” The Globe article, titled “‘Thou Shalt Not Swear’: Queer Devices Are Resorted to by Men Who Want to Quit Profanity” was occasioned by signs “against profanity” that “mysteriously began to appear in some Chicago street cars” a few weeks before the article was published. The signs read, “THOU SHALT NOT TAKE THE NAME OF THE LORD THY GOD IN VAIN.” There are many reasons to eschew profanity, certain forms of religion among them.
Twenty-first century reasons resemble those of the twentieth. I discuss a few recent anti-profanity activists in In Praise of Profanity (2016). James V. O’Connor’s Cuss Control (2000) reiterated the Commercial Traveler’s Protective Association’s public relations argument. O’Connor’s anti-profanity stance wasn’t “inspired by religious beliefs” but “by a desire to help people improve their image and […] restore a degree of civility.” McKay Hatch took the pledge, like the boys of Leesburg, and persuaded other teens to do the same, by establishing The No Cussing Club, which he celebrated in The No Cussing Club: How I Fought against Peer Pressure and How You Can Too! (2009). Hatch, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — for which profanity is as sinful as coffee — was acting on religious belief, though the book reads as adolescent self-help.
Some are inclined to dismiss these latter-day antagonists. They hold that earlier reformers fit the temper of their times, perhaps, but times have changed and all criticism of profanity is now implausible, if not risible. I was surprised by comments to this effect in reviews of my book, and, no, I am not going to be a whiny author here — I always say, “If you can’t take criticism, don’t write a book” — but such criticism raises the question of how we best understand profanity in contemporary America.
Sasha Archibald, in The Rumpus (27 September 2016), dismissed O’Connor and Hatch as “rare enough and quaint enough that the author’s tenacity” in presenting them “is unseemly … It’s a gratuitous fight and an unnecessary setup. Profanity doesn’t need to be rescued from priggish mores; it escaped long ago.” Joan Acocella in The New York Review of Books (9 February 2017) wrote, “the implication that objections to obscenity are gaining ground seems to be just plain wrong … many signs point to increasing linguistic permissiveness in our country, a good example being the public reaction to the release of Donald Trump’s 2005 ‘pussy tape.’ Many people (me too) [me too] seeing the tape … concluded that … Trump could not possibly be elected. We have learned otherwise.” Daniel Foster in The National Review (19 December 2016) said much the same.
Trump’s profanity is more complicated than these reviews suggest. It’s an exception borne of his specific brand of exceptionalism. Coastal reviewers miss at least one lesson of the election: folks in Iowa and Utah very much disagree that citizens against profanity are straw-people — they aren’t “rare” or “quaint.” I never said that “objections to obscenity are gaining ground,” quite the opposite, yet the objections do not recede to zero. Mormons alone constitute 2% of the United States population — Episcopalians are only 1.2%, and less than 1% are Presbyterians, which is one measure of significance — and most of the PR people against swearing aren’t even Mormons!
Sure, they’re in the minority, but those dead set against swearing nonetheless — and contrary to their intentions — contribute to the way we swear now. In the Age of Profanity, swearers swear without fearing retribution or even criticism. Critical attention, however, maintains the vestige of taboo. Profanity is more expressive than it used to be — it spreads into more contexts in the mouths of more speakers more often — but paradoxically it may also be less strong language. Most speakers don’t overuse profanity. Mindless use might deplete its expressive and social power. Anti-profanity activism, from the boys of Leesport to the present day, may seem quixotic and ineffective but it is part of the system that supports profanity because it keeps us mindful of the taboo historically associated with it, even if conveniently only at the backs of our minds.