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.
Here are some of the things I’ve seen characterized as a shitshow (or a shit show) during the last 115 days:
Go back just a little further and we have late-night host John Oliver’s “Clowntown Fuck-the-World Shitshow 2016” (March 2016); fellow late-night host Samantha Bee’s “most deranged electoral shit show in a generation” (February 2016) and “Shit Show the Musical” (à propos the presidential inauguration); and Michael Moore’s “My friends, this … is … a shit show” (also à propos the inauguration, at :55 in the video). In the March 2016 issue of the Atlantic Jeffrey Goldberg reported that President Obama privately called the situation in Libya a shit show. (In public, he called it a “mess.”)
And that’s very far from a comprehensive list. It’s enough to make one agree with this sentiment from @hugetiny in Austin, Texas:
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.
It’s all too common these days. After a flight, a long meeting, a night’s rest, or any other blissful reprieve, we check the headlines. “Okay, I’ve been colouring my hair all morning and haven’t looked at the news once. Deep breath,” as one tweeter steeled herself. “What fresh hell have I missed?” What fresh hell indeed: While hell is a very mild taboo by Strong Language standards, the phrase is still the perfect expression for the experience of all the news, in its unrelenting cascade of controversies and outrages, in the Trump era.