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.
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.
Say, what is now th’ ambition of the great?
Is it to raise their country’s sinking state;
Her load of debt to ease by frugal care,
Her trade to guard, her harass’d poor to spare?
Is it, like honest Somers, to inspire
The love of laws, and freedom’s sacred fire?
Is it, like wise Gondolphin, to sustain,
The balanc’d world, and boundless power restrain?
Or is the mighty aim of all their toil,
Only to aid the wreck, and share the spoil?
On each relation, friend, dependant, pour,
With partial wantonness, the golden shower,
And, fenc’d by strong corruption, to despise
An injur’d nation’s unavailing cries?
[The Poetical Works of George, Lord Lyttelton, 1801 (pages 137–138)]
How prescient Lord Lyttelton was! Corruption! Wantonness! The golden shower!
This is one of those moments where, if you’re a politician, you may get a sense that urine big trouble: Continue reading
Have those creepy clowns been terrorizing your neighborhood this autumn? Kick ‘em in the seat of their oversized, particolored pants with this choice insult: assclown. To be sure, I’m certain we can all conjure up some far stronger words for those evil motherfuckers, but let’s have a closer look at this jester jibe.
We’re delighted to bring you a guest post by Michael Adams, Professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington and past president of the Dictionary Society of North America. Adams specializes in lexicography, slang, and the history of English. He is the author of Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon (2003), Slang: The People’s Poetry (2009), From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages (2011), and In Praise of Profanity (2016). You can expect that last one to reappear here sooner or later.
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Donald Trump swears a lot, perhaps more than any other major presidential candidate in history. I’m not sure that should bother us. Most Americans swear now and then and plenty of us swear more than Mr. Trump swears during his public appearances. I have no idea how much he swears in private; I’m pretty sure it’s none of my damned business.