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.”
Expletive infixing is a much-loved mode of profanity. Is profanity good for you? Absofuckinglutely. Does infixing serve profanity as what James B. McMillan once called an “emotional stress amplifier”? I guarangoddamntee it. For most of us, infixings like these and interposings like shut the fuck up aren’t everyday speech, but nowadays, they’re hardly shocking. If you’re just not paying attention to your conversation, an infixing might take you by surprise, but the surprise will be mild, and the forms cleave so well to rules that they are obviously — gasp! — conventional. How does one draw attention to the unconventionality of one’s speech when infixing gets — yawn — a bit tired?
In fact, the rules of infixing are constantly under construction and repertoire of profanity thus constantly renewed. A March 2016 post at Celebslam, “Model at Midnight,” celebrated the Polish model Kate Sajur’s putatively “sweet rack.” It attracted the attention of Carmen Ribecca of The Superficial, an even better celebrity gossip site. Ribecca’s “good morning” post of April 1, 2016, included “Hell the fuck to the lo Kate Sajur” among several other enticing links. I’m less interested in the rack than I am in Ribecca’s novel twist on infixing. Like much other slang and profanity, Ribecca’s headline is poetic. Like many on-the-fly poets, Ribecca does what Ezra Pound exhorted poets to do when they could find nothing new under the sun: “Make it new.”