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.
The following is a guest post by Blake Eskin, an editor and writer who has kept track of expletive avoidance by the New York Times, with his Tumblr Fit to Print and the #fittoprint hashtag on Twitter.
Ben Zimmer called the dissemination of Donald Trump’s recorded conversation with Billy Bush a “watershed moment in public profanity,” since major news outlets such as CNN and the New York Times presented Trump’s remarks without bowdlerization. Even Times subscribers who avoid the internet and cable news had to confront the words “pussy” and “fuck” on Page One, above the fold and before the jump, on their way to the Saturday crossword.
Let’s compare this with how the Times handled the death of Keith Scott two weeks earlier.
The Old Gray Lady is a prude.
In a story about Samuel L. Jackson and the motherfucking snakes on his motherfucking plane, the New York Times mentions that he “unleashes a 13-letter epithet” without even giving the reader a first letter to go on. (Times readers, it is assumed, are prepared to solve crossword clues anywhere in the paper, even in a guide to what’s on TV.) In a story about someone being fired for swearing, the paper does not name or even hint at the swear, though it does accompany the story with a charming F-bomb illustration that I kind of want to hang in my dining room. Until last year, if Yankees or Mets fans chanted “bullshit” after a blown call, the Times would refer to this only as “a barnyard epithet.”
But this week, the New York Times published “fuck,” “bitch,” “tits,” and “pussy” without so much as a hyphen or asterisk to conceal their naughtiness.
So what the fuck is happening to the Times?
In a word: Trump.
It’s safe to say that October 7, 2016 will go down in history as a watershed moment in public profanity. On this day, a recording emerged of the Republican nominee for president saying utterly reprehensible things about women, featuring no fewer than four taboo words: pussy, fuck, bitch, and tits. (His interlocutor threw in one more: shit.) And major news outlets had to decide whether they should transcribe the quotes verbatim, in some cases setting new precedents in how they handle such vocabulary.