Americans are right to complain about rude-and-crude comments by President Trump and other politicians today. We should realize, though, that our entire culture has become much ruder and cruder over several decades. Provocative clothing styles, bathroom and other crude “humor” on television and the Internet, the weaponized “social media,” and widely available pornography mean that rude-and-crude is hard to avoid today.
Recently many newspaper and magazine editors have even decided to quote obscene language verbatim instead of using the traditional “(expletive)” as a substitute. F-bombs, in particular, are now heavily used. Many people use them without knowing—or perhaps without caring—about their association with rape (as in “he f-d her”) and incest (“mother f-r”).
As a youngster, I lived on a lovely Maryland farm, a few miles from Whites Ferry on the Potomac River. We called our farm “Rolling Hills,” and on one side of the road it rolled right down to the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The farm had a grand bank barn with high rafters, plenty of room for hay, and a barnyard behind it. Sometimes we penned our Hereford cattle in the barnyard to wait for the veterinarian. Cattle, of course, are not potty-trained; so the barnyard was a smelly mess after their brief stay, and rain sometimes made it worse. It was best to wear boots and step smartly if you had to go through it.
I think of the old barnyard now when pondering the state of everyday language in our time. Why the endless fascination with feces and urine? Why do so many folks pepper their conversation with the s-word and the p-word? Do they think a barnyard is a nice place to live?
Little kids like to show how tough they are by using their parents’ cuss words, often not knowing what the words mean. Some entertainers and writers go much farther; they shovel the worst words they can find into their manure spreaders and dump them all over the countryside. When comedian George Carlin passed away, he was remembered for his obscenity routines. By contrast, when writer George Plimpton died, Norman Mailer’s praise for him included: “What fine manners he had!”
Most people, I suspect, would prefer to be remembered for courtesy. Yet many fail to notice that their barnyard talk may cause unhappiness to a captive audience. And while they may think of cursing as a way to “let off steam,” it often increases anger instead of reducing it. People work themselves into a rage by exchanging rude insults—not just at home or on the streets, but increasingly on the Internet and in politics. In 2004, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, then-Vice President Richard Cheney unloaded an f-bomb against one of the most senior Democrats, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Leahy kindly said of Cheney that “I think he was just having a bad day,” though he admitted that “I was kind of shocked to hear that kind of language on the floor.” The next vice president, Joseph Biden, used the f-word to emphasize what a big deal it was to pass Obamacare.
There are good reasons why the f-word was taboo for centuries, and still is for many people. As noted above, some versions of the word imply rape or incest. Often used as a supreme insult, it may well be the ugliest word in the English language. Yet some very attractive people use it routinely.
In political talk, references to courage often are expressed in terms of male anatomy. (“Testicular fortitude” is the relatively polite version.) Actually, though, the word “courage” comes from Latin and French words for “heart.” For some reason, courage seems to have descended down the body: from the heart to the intestines or “guts” and then to genitalia. Perhaps it’s on its way down to the feet?
In his book Cuss Control (Three Rivers Press, 2000), James V. O’Connor offers practical tips to reduce or end cussing that many have found helpful. As one of his readers reported cheerfully on the Internet, “So far I have only dropped the f-bomb once today. Go me!”
While some people describe cussing as “colorful,” O’Connor says that “chronic cussers repeatedly use the same, unimaginative words that have been around for centuries.”
He is right. Cussing is often stale, dull, mind-numbing. When it’s the only language around, we forget how graceful and eloquent English can be. And we forget the beauty and happiness in our world.
The barnyard is not what I remember most about the farm years. I remember cattle grazing in bluegrass on peaceful summer evenings. Newborn calves, struggling to their feet and starting to walk on their spindly legs. Galloping along the C & O Canal towpath in a horse race with a brother and sister. Watching a friend who, tossed from the saddle by a Tennessee Walker, made a graceful somersault and landed on her feet.
I remember roaming fields and creek after school with our great farm dog, Jimmy, who was always ready for adventure. Taking care of my calves and other critters and learning the satisfaction of hard work that’s done well. Carrying water and iced tea out to the guys in the fields when they loaded hay bales on hot summer days. Climbing a cherry tree to pick cherries for dessert or canning. Learning the call of bobwhites and then whistling back and forth with them from that tree. Watching magnificent sunsets over the Virginia mountains across the river. Enjoying the sweet scents of honeysuckle and fresh alfalfa hay.
Much better than the barnyard, don’t you think?