Profanity, the unoriginal sin

July 23, 2003

It was the end of a long day when I pulled my old pickup up to the pump at Sheetz on Potomac Avenue in Hagerstown. On the other side was an unattended car with the stereo on full blast, the thumping beat punctuated with a string of obscenities.

It was the kind of thing that has made some evenings at Greenbrier State Park lake less than pleasant, as some visitors not satisfied with the sounds of nature have substituted amplified boom-box fare instead. And not gospel tunes, either.

I glanced at the empty auto, its sound system pouring out amplified four-letter words like an open fire hydrant, then at the woman at the next pump. She gave me a "What can you do?" look and I went in to pay.

In line was a young woman talking on her cell phone. She was shouting, actually, evidently to someone who couldn't hear her very well.


"Sheetz. Sheetz. I'm at Sheetz," she hollered, shaking her hand up and down for emphasis, as if the person she had called could see her. The conversation continued at top volume.

"And then she ran up to me and I didn't know what she was going to do. And she said, 'How the f--- are you?'"

I had the urge to thank her for sharing that, but didn't.

The next day I was driving in downtown Hagerstown and pulled up to the traffic light at Baltimore and Locust streets, just a few doors from the B'nai Abraham synagogue.

One man on the sidewalk was speaking, while another who stood on the front porch of an apartment listened, as four children, each no more than 4 years old, gathered at his feet.

"I told him to f--- that. That f---er was no good, because it was a motherf---ing gas hog," he said. The children stared at him as if he were delivering a biblical prophecy.

On Sunday afternoon, my wife and I went to the beautiful lake at Cowan's Gap State Lake in Fort Loudon, Pa., which apparently allows leashed pets but not boom boxes.

After 45 minutes in the water, we got out and dried off. Next to our towels on the beach were two little boys, each no more than 2, building sand castles side-by-side.

A man standing nearby decided to give one of them some advice on how to fill his bucket.

"Mike, you little f----er, don't put so much sand in it," he said. His instructions were reinforced by a couple sitting nearby.

"Time to go," I said to my wife.

As we walked out, we passed two teenage couples. The boys were trying to persuade the girls to get into the water.

"It's too cold," said one of the girls, smiling sweetly.

"Get in the f----ing water," said one of the boys.

In she went, her smile still intact.

"There's a boyfriend to die for," I said to my wife.

It would be easy to write a column about the coarsening of public life, but that's already been done many times. I know, because when I entered "proliferation of profanity" on an Internet keyword search, more than 1,000 entries came up.

I didn't find what I was searching for, which was an analysis of when - or how - profanity went from being something that burst forth only when people were extremely angry to something sprinkled into everyday conversations, like croutons on a salad.

You can blame it on the young and their need to stretch the limits of what's acceptable, but I remember when I was a junior college student and student groups were demonstrating in favor of adding black studies and against the Vietnam War.

The two groups decided that an alliance might be in order, but when they met, the leader of the black studies faction listened for a while, then asked the head of the anti-war group to tone down his language out of respect for the women present. He did so, and apologized for his rough talk. The lesson is that anyone can moderate their behavior if they choose to do so.

Why should this sort of behavior get on my nerves? Because, like the empty car, whose driver insisted I listen to his music whether he was there or not, the users of the "f" word are forcing me to listen to their uninspiring yap. I don't assume that everyone else wants to listen to my private rants, so why should they assume that I want to listen to theirs?

But appealing to these practitioners of profanity on the grounds that they're invading my space in an unpleasant way is probably a waste of time. Those who believe the "f" word is acceptable in public conversation probably haven't had much education in etiquette.

No, the answer is probably related to the point raised in many of the essays I read about how the growing use of such language in music and movies made it more acceptable in public speech.

It may be acceptable, but it is also unoriginal. Allen Walker Read, an English professor at Columbia University, found after years of study that the "f" word was introduced to English-speaking people by Dutch sailors in the 1600s.

Would I be risking a punch in the head, or worse, if I asked the foul-mouthed people I meet if they realize that what they imagine is hip and relevant is really 400 years out of date? If I get up the courage to try, I'll let you know what happens.

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