Martha Gellhorn and all-American-lady-swearing

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.

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That Canadian fucker Alex Trebek: What is a salty dog?

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, [2020]), 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.

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“Bollocks (or bollix) up”: British or American?

On my blog about British words and expressions adopted in America, Not One-Off-Britishisms, I’ve written briefly a couple of times about “bollocks,” originally meaning testicles and since used in all sorts of colorful ways. (The link is the more recent post, and it has a link to the previous one.) I recommend the comments on both, many of which are relate to how offensive the term has been, until fairly recently, in Britain.

I imagine that the move to acceptability occurred following the 1977 album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. The record company was actually brought to court on obscenity charges; it won. Incidentally, it appears that the album led to the change in the more common spelling of the word, from “ballocks” to “bollocks.” Check out this chart from Google Books Ngram Viewer, showing the incidence of the two words in British books:

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WTF?! We need a game-night game about profanity!

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.

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Fuck hammers slang like rock bashes scissors

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.

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