At this writing, my son, Ollie, is seven-and-a-half years wise, so of course he’s begun to swear, albeit on mostly innocuous terms. Trust me, he hasn’t learned to swear from his mom or dad. We’re careful to set a good example around the kids. And we’re not big swearers ourselves. True, every time Jenny heard George W. Bush’s talk about the Iraq War on the radio she muttered, “Pig-fucker,” but that was before we had children, and given recent political events in America, she’s unexpectedly nostalgic, historically and linguistically revisionist.
Ollie has picked up profanity from friends, of course. He has no phone yet and doesn’t text, so OMG isn’t in his spoken lexicon. He can’t depend on initialism for euphemism. He started to interject Oh, my god in the usual places — frustration with his parents’ decisions, moments of surprise or wonder, frustration with intractable Legos or intermittent Netflix, well, mostly frustration, I guess. We sympathize and we know, too, that frustration often requires verbal expression and relief. Nevertheless, we discourage Oh, my god and recommend Oh, my gosh, instead.
Led by the likes of A. S. Colborne and Roland Sawyer, millions of Americans have joined anti-profanity movements and sworn to eradicate swearing. Despite their fervor and persistence, nothing much has changed over the last century or so. Well, except that there’s more swearing. Perhaps only divine intervention can rid the world of bad language. That’s more or less what the newish, unusual NBC sitcom The Good Place proposes.
The Good Place premiered on NBC on 19 September 2016 and ran for thirteen episodes. It’s been renewed for a second thirteen-episode season to begin 28 September 2017. Its creator and show-runner, Michael Schur, has a sense of humor devilish or divine, depending on how you look at it. Here’s the premise: just a few remarkably good and productive people make it to the Good Place and everyone else — statistically, everybody — goes to the Bad Place.
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.
A journalist like Joseph Mitchell looks at an anti-profanity powerhouse like A. S. Colborne from one angle, as he did in “Mr. Colborne’s Profanity Exterminators.” Mitchell’s Colborne is an eccentric committed to the eradication of all profanity and even euphemisms for profanity. His profile, while gentle, nonetheless portrays Colborne as hopelessly optimistic about profanity prohibition. Mitchell’s essay is compelling but unsettlingly coherent. What did Colborne and the Anti-Profanity League look like to others before 1941, when Mitchell’s article about him appeared in The New Yorker?
Colborne was everywhere you wouldn’t expect him, both in the flesh and in the papers. In July, 1908, readers across America encountered him as “A Modern Crusader” who, although his “agitation has heretofore been of the home circle sort, these days is doing strenuous stunts with his hobby. Boys and men have been hired by him to give out little pink slips which read thus: Don’t Swear.” When Mitchell ran into him, the “exterminators,” as the slips were called, bore a more complicated message. Also, Mitchell knew Colborne as “a portly old man,” but, in 1908, Americans saw him in his prime, as a portly young man. The Evansville Press claimed the article quoted was “Special to the Press,” but it wasn’t — it was widely syndicated, and not every paper misspelled Colborne’s name.
Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996) was an outstanding essayist whose subjects ranged from McSorley’s Old Ale House to the variety of rats entering New York City through the harbor to the Mohawks from Quebec who worked construction way up there where buildings scrape the sky. He specialized in profiles of unusual people, for instance, Joe Gould, the blue-blooded Yankee bohemian cadger who claimed to be writing “An Oral History of Our Time” — at a preliminary 9 million words perhaps “the lengthiest unpublished work in existence” — and to speak the language of sea gulls, which, arms flapping, he demonstrated publicly. Readers were drawn by the apparent oddity of Mitchell’s subjects but learned, as Mitchell intended, a broader humanity from reading about them.
Among the unusuals was Arthur Samuel Colborne, who founded the Anti-Profanity League in 1901 and was still its president on 26 April 1941, when Mitchell’s profile of him, titled “Mr. Colborne’s Profanity-Exterminators,” was published in The New Yorker. (It was re-titled “The Don’t-Swear Man” for Mitchell’s anthology Up in the Old Hotel .) When Mitchell meets him in “Shannon’s, an Irish saloon on the southeast corner of Third Avenue and Seventy-sixth Street,” Colborne is “a portly old man …. over six feet tall,” whose “eyes, behind steel-rimmed glasses, were clear and utterly honest.” The headquarters of the Anti-Profanity League and Colborne’s apartment — as with many a zealot, one and the same — were just around the corner, at 185 East Seventy-sixth. We know this because Mitchell visits him there — “‘If you’re looking for the don’t-swear man, he lives down in the basement,” a woman with a poodle explains — but also because the office address was included on every “profanity exterminator.”