‘What fresh hell’: the pitch-perfect chorus of our collective news outrage

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.

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Joseph Mitchell, A. S. Colborne, and the Anti-Profanity League

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who claimed to be writing “An Oral History of Our Time” — at a preliminary 9 million words perhaps “the lengthiest unpublished work in existence” — and to speak the language of sea gulls, which, arms flapping, he demonstrated publicly.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 [1992].) 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.”

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Biting the fig. The finger, part II

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

Sweary links #21

Dick Assman, a Canadian gas station owner — yes, Assman the Gasman — has died at 82. He achieved fleeting celebrity in the 1990s when Dave Letterman featured him on the Late Show.

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Our new favorite Twitter account: Swear Trek.

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When lyrics were clean, almost

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