The Magazine

Cleaning Up My Act

Nov 27, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 11 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Roughly three months ago, I resolved to stop swearing. Not that I used profanity relentlessly, but I had begun to notice that I was availing myself of it more and more--and doing so in situations where I used to be more restrained: among what used to be called mixed company.

Lots of women have now taken to swearing. The right to use profanity is, I suppose, one of the--some would say highly dubious--benefits of women's liberation. "When I was young," Tom Lehrer has said, "there were so many words you couldn't use in the presence of a girl. Now you can use them all, but you better not call her a girl." Too true.

I decided to banish profanity from my conversation because it began to seem indecorous, especially in a man who is a grandfather. A clue that it was time to cease was when I began to part words in the middle with the F-word: as in unf--believable. Besides, I didn't want my deathbed words to include profanity.

Precocious in small vices, I learned swearing at an all-boys camp in Eagle River, Wisconsin, to which I was sent when I was eight years old. I never swore around my parents, of course, or around girls. Most of my bad language, as swearing used to be called, was done on various athletic fields, in locker rooms, and around pals.

My use of profanity increased in high school, where swearing and cigarette-smoking were taken as early, if obviously bogus, evidence of manhood. Hard to imagine going without swearing in the U.S. Army; apart perhaps only from seminaries, any all-male environment is fertile ground for profanity. (Men are brutes, in case you didn't notice.) Certain of my basic-training sergeants taught me that swearing could be put to comic purposes; they seemed to specialize in inserting profanity into sentences that also included the words "behooves" and "mandatory," and to do so with a rhythmical nicety that always delighted.

Swearing can be wittily, even artfully, done, as my sergeants of those days regularly demonstrated. When I was in high school, I worked briefly for a fat man who swore chiefly from behind the wheel of his car, where much profanity gets uttered even by otherwise mild-mannered people. Once, when a man about to pass on his left honked at him, he quickly rolled down his window to riposte, "Blow it out your duffelbag, farthead."

I've never been complimented on the artfulness of my profanity. But if it wasn't artful, I do like to think it was at least mildly discriminating. I never liked and very rarely used the dysphemism for anus (itself a sufficiently ugly word); I steered clear of all the slang words for female private parts, though not of the many more in use for male parts. Never in earnest have I attached the prefix mother to the F-word. I should have liked to have invented a new swear word, but failed to do so.

I do, though, believe I hold the record for using the F-word more times in a single piece in the London Times Literary Supplement than any other contributor. The occasion was my review of the first volume of J.E. Lighter's Historical Dictionary of American Slang, which stopped at the letter G and contained no fewer than twelve pages on the F-word. What is it about the need so many Americans have for this word, so that it has four not-quite-adequate substitutes: effing, friggin', freakin', and flamin'? Perhaps it's the word's rhythm that makes it so fine an emphasizer.

I wrote the foreword for the new Yale Dictionary of Quotations, where quotations using the F-word and other profanities have been permitted entry. (As they also have in the most recent edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.) The reason behind allowing this is, such have been the changes in the tone and temper of contemporary culture, that not permitting them would constitute prudery, and so it probably would.

Still, when I edited The American Scholar, I refused to allow profanity in its pages. Not much was offered, but when I struck profane words from manuscripts I instructed the authors to take comfort by telling them how unusual they were to find themselves censored so late in the twentieth century.

As for curbing my own use of profanity in speech, it has been largely successful, with only very occasional slippages. I no longer use profanity, but the problem is that, like old Jimmy Carter walking around with lust in his heart, I still cannot stop thinking in profanity. I'm like the old European immigrant who forces himself to speak only English but still dreams in his native language.