In Sinclair Lewis’s prescient 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, the ignorant demagogue Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip wins the 1936 election with the support of millions of impoverished and angry voters. Among the more serious totalitarian indignities of Windrip’s “Corpo” government are the curtailing of women’s and minority rights and the building of concentration camps. Another tactic is the bowdlerizing of language and the forbidding of words and phrases that seemingly run counter to the administration’s noble ends.
Fast forward to the present day. Continue reading
I wrote about some of the diverse uses of the bird, the single-digit salute, the flip-off—the finger—in my book Damn!, and subsequently here at Strong Language in my digital piece, “Bird is the Word.” I found roots that harked back to a passage in The Clouds by Aristophanes, and to ancient Rome, where it was called the digitus impudicus, or the “impudent finger.” In an epigram of the first century poet Martial, he “points his finger, and the insulting one at that, towards Alcon, Dasius and Symmachus.” Emperor Caligula offering of his extended middle finger, rather than his hand, to his subjects to kiss was seen as scandalous. But that was Nero for you. What else did you expect? The gesture became so abhorrent that Augustus Caesar banished an actor from Rome for giving the finger to an audience member who hissed at the man during a performance. Although my next book, the cookbook memoir Not My Mother’s Kitchen, did not contain a single cussword or allusion to one, I discovered along the way that the Italian peninsula still had their fingers on the pulse of profanity—only this time with figs. Continue reading
The Greek philosopher Plato wrote, “Forms and rhythms in music are never altered without producing changes in the entire fabric of society.” He also said, “No evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death,” so it’s better that we stick with his take on music. In twentieth-century America, ragtime, jazz, rock, and later punk and rap, all bristled against the accepted music of their times. Although the earliest indictments of these genres were aimed primarily at the music itself, it was not really until the 1950s that songs were being banned for their lyrical content. This content, though, was generally regarded for its subject matter and not necessarily for the language used in expressing the ideas. This is to say that although the songs were deemed vulgar or subversive, actual profanity—or “sweary” language, if you will—was still a rare bird. However anyone swore in real life, cussing, cursing, or just “potty-mouth talk” did not really begin to make its way into the recording booth until the late 1960s. Continue reading
When Stephen Sondheim was writing the lyrics for “Gee, Officer Krupke,” to be sung in the 1957 musical West Side Story, he was hoping to be the first person to use a serious four-letter obscenity in a Broadway show: “Gee, Officer Krupke—Fuck you!” This did not come to pass. Columbia records balked because obscenity laws would prohibit the recording from being shipped over state lines. In the end, the line was changed to “Krup you!”— Sondheim has since maintained that it may be the best lyric line in the show. Is there any doubt what the lyric would be if it were written today? In the fifty-plus years since West Side Story, the expletive is not only fully accepted in the theater, but roundly applauded. Continue reading
As much as the youthful Norman Mailer may have enjoyed inflating his self-image by inundating friend and foe with a superheated geyser of “fucks,” his favorite word wasn’t acceptable for the printed page in 1948. The disgruntled (read “pissed-off”) Mailer was forced to substitute the word “fug” for “fuck” in his gritty war novel The Naked and the Dead. The story goes that this prompted the waggish starlet Tallulah Bankhead to say upon first meeting Mailer, “So you’re the young man who can’t spell fuck.” If Mailer never wanted to see—or say—another “fug” in his life, there was a counter-culture rock group that thought the euphemism was the ideal name to have to “stick it to” the establishment of the 1960s.
Enter The Fugs. Continue reading