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.
Earlier this month, Whores of Yore published a set of letters that James Joyce wrote to his wife, Nora Barnacle. These letters are taken from Richard Ellmann’s Selected Letters of James Joyce (Faber & Faber, London), and they are delightfully raunchy filth. Joyce’s discussion of topics including masturbation, anal sex, coprophilia and his sexual desire for his wife are frank enough to even make a Strong Language reader blush a little.
Before I’d even stopped blushing, there were some words that got me thinking. And so, I present some annotations to some of the language in the letters. Thanks to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Merriam-Webster (MW) and Dictionary.com for providing a trove of information.
“Nora, my faithful darling, my sweet-eyed blackguard schoolgirl, be my whore, my mistress, as much as you like” (2 December 1909)
Here Joyce affectionately uses a term that means ‘dishonourable’ or ‘villainous’, which may be lost on the modern reader. He also uses the term a half a dozen times in Ulysses, but only ever in reference to men.
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.”
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