Sentimentally, we like to think that ladies of an earlier time — mostly our grandmothers and great-grandmothers — lived virtuous lives, without swearing. When Joseph Mitchell profiled A. S. Colborne, who spent much of his life trying to exterminate profanity, for The New Yorker in 1941, he captured the paradoxical view of women’s swearing, partly as a function of class, at that time. When Mitchell visited one day, Colborne explained, “I’m sort of sleepy … Sat up late last night studying over bar and grill profanity. Why, the women are worse than the men. And you can’t talk to them! Why, they’ll spit in your eye!” But then, he remembered that when he first started admonishing swearers on the street, he would insist, “‘Your dear old mother never taught you to talk like that. Think it over!” But maybe some mothers did, and some classy women of the mid-twentieth century apparently swore a lot, whatever our mythology.
I was reminded of this while reading Janet Somerville’s new selection of Martha Gellhorn’s letters, Yours, for probably always (Firefly Books, 2019) and then Caroline Morehead’s Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life (Henry Holt and Company, 2003). Gellhorn is a remarkable writer, perhaps most famous for her war reporting. The final edition of The Face of War (1988), collects dispatches from the Spanish Civil War, the wars in Finland and China, Word War II, wars in Java and Vietnam, the Six Day War, and Central American wars. She wrote fiction, too, perhaps most importantly The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936), four stories about the Great Depression. To my mind, Gellhorn is one of the best American writers of the twentieth century.
Louis Menand recently reminisced at length in The New Yorker (23 November 2020) about the late Alex Trebek, longtime host of the television quiz show Jeopardy!, with this aside: “By his own account, offered in his brief and cheery memoir, The Answer Is[…] Reflections on My Life (Simon & Schuster, ), and confirmed by other reports, including McNear’s [Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive Guide to Jeopardy! and Its History (Grand Central, 2020)], when Trebek was off the air he was more laid-back and salty, less like your eighth-grade math teacher.” And that sounds about right. I’m pretty sure Mr. Fuller didn’t swear, though my eighth-grade algebra class gave him plenty of reason to do so — there’s plenty of swearing at algebra, even among eighth graders, but no swearing in it, and Mr. Fuller’s life was a veritable story problem.
I don’t do social media, and here’s why: just the other day, I watched my first TikTok. It rocked my world. Miami news anchor Frances Wang (@franceswangtv) posted a montage of Alex Trebek swearing like a salty seadog fishing herring in the Bay of Fundy. My wife thought I needed to see it, damn the psychological consequences.
If you go to Louisville, Kentucky — as my wife and I do as frequently as we can — you have to eat, so you’re always on the lookout for worthwhile restaurants. Frankly, we tend to eat at our favorite spots whenever we visit, but before our last weekend there, I checked the restaurant-tagged Google map for new places. There was one of our favorites, Doc Crow’s — oysters on the shell, exceptional pork rinds — and just behind it was a bar called The Troll Pub. I clicked over to its website and immediately exclaimed “What the fuck?” which was only partly an expression of my incredulity, because at The Troll Pub they have WTF happy hours — Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays — so I was also just reading what was in front of me. But what an offense! I stared in disbelief at WTF, a perfectly good profanity, brought down by a marketing pun. “How often are we taken in by this indirection?” I wondered. In fact, it happens more than you’d think, let alone hope. I learned this when shopping around for fun game night games, some of which perpetrate similar puns.
I still maintain that slang is good for you, but, sometimes, profanity is even better. Slang is playful and facetious, the story goes, the language by which groups hang together. Profanity, on the other hand, is supposedly coarse and mean. Well, that’s true enough, in some cases, but I’ve recently been reminded that profanity is occasionally the lighter alternative, that the relevant slang is what’s coarse and violent. Yes, I’m talking about sex, or, more precisely, the language of sex — not copulate or get it on, but the relative value of fuck and bang or nail.
During her storied career as a stage, film, and television actress, Kristen Bell has received many honors and awards — she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6225 Hollywood Boulevard! — but, until now, no one has recognized her as the Queen of Television Euphemism. From her thespian throne, she ruled 2019, first as Eleanor Shellstrop in Seasons Three and Four of NBC’s The Good Place, a series in which profanity is automatically and ontologically replaced with euphemisms. Eleanor tries to say things like “motherfucking shitballs,” but they all come out like “motherforking shirtballs.” So, there’s no swearing in the Good Place, except that the Good Place is actually the Bad Place, so it’s hard to tell whether euphemism is diabolical or divine. Then, thanks to Hulu, Bell reappeared as Veronica Mars, grown-up private eye, in Season Four of Veronica Mars, another show in which euphemism is practically a character. Continue reading