»  National Review Online

January 6, 2004

  The Deplorable Words


[Note:  The following column includes numerous occurrences of some taboo words. To avoid wearing out my asterisk key, I have made the following substitutions, which I am afraid you will have to keep in mind as your read:  "pop" for the common f-word, "plum" for the human rear end, and "peg" for the male organ of generation. So when your eye sees a "pop," a "popped" or a "popping," just mentally substitute a "f***," a "f***ed" or a "f***ing," and similarly for "plum," etc. Got it? Good. Then I'll proceed.]

I see from the New York Post that in the last week of 2003 our governor issued a posthumous pardon to the comedian Lenny Bruce. The pardon was for a 1964 conviction on obscenity charges under New York law. Bruce died in 1966, at age 40, from a heroin overdose. The obscenity conviction related to a stand-up routine Bruce had developed for use in private clubs, involving lots of taboo words — sexual, scatological, and racial.

Bruce was one of those annoying people who do not see the point of the kind of mild, harmless hypocrisy that allows us to get through life without having to think about unpleasant things too much. At some moment in their youth, people of Bruce's kind stumble on the fact that when a stranger greets me with "How ya doin'?" the stranger does not, in fact, give a fig about how I am doing, and would be very little distressed to learn that I was suffering from Bright's disease or lymphatic cancer. "How ya doin'?" is just an empty form of words used to soften the bumps and abrasions of our social encounters.

Of course, this reflection occurs to us all at some point. Most of us, though, cleave to the Yiddish precept that: "A false 'Good morning' is better than a sincere 'Go to hell'." People of the Lenny Bruce type prefer the converse principle. To them, the discovery that we use empty forms of words in our trivial exchanges is a tremendous revelation, on the scale of Keats first looking into Chapman's Homer. People are lying! They are going round LYING TO EACH OTHER!! All day long!!! Lying, lying, lying — so-called polite society is just a TISSUE OF LIES!!!! And off they go, the Lenny Bruces, on a crusade to expose and sweep away all the lies, all the hypocrisy, and restore truth, honesty, frankness and justice to human affairs.

The campaign to get Bruce a pardon was led by his ex-wife and daughter, together with Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers comic team (one of whom, I forget which, was the first to utter the word "bra" on network TV — there's glory for you!), Robin Williams, and a pack, or whatever the proper collective noun is, of First Amendment lawyers. The pardon was hailed in the liberal press as a great victory for First Amendment principles.

This, if anyone wants to know what I think about it, is a crock. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from making any law abridging the freedom of speech. None of the people who wrote those words, and hardly any grown-up person in the U.S.A. from that time to this, thinks that the First Amendment makes it OK for citizens to go around yelling obscenities at each other in the street. I doubt even Robin Williams believes that.

The acceptable use of taboo words has always been fenced off in a few, mostly all-male, regions of social intercourse: the military and the merchant marine, manual workers like stevedores and lumberjacks, professional athletes, actors, traders in stocks and bonds. (Yes! I was stunned when I first went to work on Wall Street at how foul were the mouths of securities traders wearing thousand-dollar suits and toting million-dollar compensation packages. Back office, too: almost the first words I heard on joining First Boston in 1986 came from a senior back-office department manager who was speaking on the phone to a trader: "Whaddya mean, you don't know the popping price of the popping security? You're the popping trader, aren't you?") All that Lenny Bruce did was to add one other small zone — comedy clubs — in which dirty talk was acceptable. The rest of society went on pretty much as usual.

Pretty much. There has been some loosening of restraints all around since, of course, the 1960s — most notably in the movies. I doubt anyone could prove that Lenny Bruce was responsible for all of that, though. It was just part of the Great Disruption, as he himself was. The loosening had actually begun some years before Bruce showed up, led by writers like Norman Mailer.

And considering the huge changes in other areas of our lives this past 40 years, I think the restraints on the use of taboo words have held up surprisingly well. You still can't utter these words in most kinds of polite society, or on network TV, or in a broadsheet newspaper, or in front of children, or when campaigning for votes. At least, there is general agreement, among both liberals and conservatives, that you shouldn't. We all know people who get some kind of satisfaction, or believe they can score points of some sort, by violating these rules. Such people no longer make themselves social outcasts by so doing, or get struck from their party's roster of candidates, but they generate embarrassment and disapproval, as John Kerry did recently when, in an interview for Rolling Stone, he accused George W. Bush of seriously popping up the Iraq operation.

In fact Lenny Bruce's attempt at revolution was a failure. His desire, often expressed, was to drain taboo words of their power by bringing them into routine use. This, he reasoned, would dissolve the repression of natural desires that, according to him — or more precisely, according to the mid-century intellectual avant-garde of which he was a fringe hanger-on — caused so many people to be unhappy. Freed from these stuffy bourgeois conventions, the human spirit would soar unfettered up through the ether to aery realms of bliss. Human beings would deal more honestly with each other, war and poverty and racism would cease, and so on. The fact that this message, even if true, might have been more plausible coming from someone who was not a heroin addict with a dysfunctional marriage, did not seem to occur to Bruce's admirers.

In any case it didn't work. The deplorable words have retained their power. Some of them — see below — have actually increased their power. That power derives from the words' referents, from their original and essential meanings, which dwell in those areas of life where disgust and humiliation roam most freely. In the matter of disgust, most taboo words refer to the elimination of bodily wastes, to the genitals (which, noted Sigmund Freud in that dry way of his, "have not undergone the development of the rest of the human form in the direction of beauty"), and of course to the sex act, which is disgusting to all of us some of the time — even to great poets, apparently — and to some people all the time.

Where disgust and humiliation join forces, the derived curse can be lethal, even today in this enlightened year 38 A.B. (After Bruce). This was demonstrated at Rao's restaurant in New York City on the evening of December 22, when, in a shouting match over the talents of a lady singer, 37-year-old Albert Circelli hurled the following imprecation at 67-year-old Louis Barone: "Pop you, I'll pop you in the plum and I'll split you in two." Barone's response was to pull out a gun and shoot Circelli dead. He later explained to police that: "I lost face. I had to defend my honor. I had no choice but to shoot him." You don't need to approve of Barone's action to see his point.

Lenny Bruce's aim of draining the power from taboo words extended to the sphere of race:

Well, if all the [n-word]s started calling each other [n-word], not only among themselves, which they do anyway, but among others … If President Kennedy got on television and said: "I'm considering appointing two or three of the top [n-word]s in the country to my cabinet" — if it was nothing but [n-word], [n-word], [n-word] — in six months [n-word] wouldn't mean any more than good night, god bless you …  — when that beautiful day comes, you'll never see another [n-word] kid come home from school crying because some motherpopper called him a [n-word].

In this respect, too, Bruce's campaign was an utter failure. The n-word is even more thoroughly tabooed now than it was in 1962. Whether this has done anything to improve relations between the races is a question I have no space to explore here.

Human beings seem to have a deep need for taboo words, for such words to be handy and ready for use on the particular and well-defined social occasions when they are acceptable. I believe all languages have them, though some have more than others, and there are national styles in profanity, like the well-known German preference for scatology, or the British fondness for the c-word. (Though in matters military, as is often the case, Britons and Americans are of the same mind on one point at least: the style of center-pleated military headgear properly known as a "garrison cap" is familiarly referred to by servicemen on both sides of the Atlantic as a "[c-word] cap.")

In Mandarin Chinese, the only foreign language I know much about, the all-purpose expletive is tamade, pronounced "tah-MAH-duh," which translates as "his (her, its, your) mother's." His mother's what? The great 20th-century writer Lu Xun — he was a sort of Chinese Orwell in his broad outlook — wrote a witty essay on this topic, which somehow manages not to be offensive at all. You hear tamade all the time in Chinese street talk. Often it is just used in isolation. After hitting your thumb with a hammer, for example, it would be appropriate to say Ta-MA-de!! — "Oh, pop!!" The expression can also be heard in more complex forms, sometimes truncated, as in Shei tama zhidao? — "Who the pop knows?"

Lesser Chinese dialects are usually much more foul-mouthed than the official national language. Dogs, mothers, popping, and, for reasons it would take much too long to explain, turtles feature largely in various combinations, some of them physiologically very improbable. In South China, where you can get three mutually-incomprehensible dialects within ten miles of each other, the locals tweak their neighbors with expressions that sound obscene on this side of the mountain but harmless on the other. Taishan people, for example, will mutter Kip ma-go hoi! among speakers of "regular" Guangzhou Cantonese, to whom it sounds like "Go ride a horse across the river." To a Taishanese ear it is actually much more potent than that.

My knowledge of profanity in languages other than Chinese is random and scattered. I know, for example, the common Hungarian curse lófasz a seggedbe, pronounced "LAW-foss o SHAY-ged-beh," which invites the addressed party to perform a certain maneuver involving his own plum and the peg of an unspecified horse. This curse, while very rude indeed (do not try it out on the first Hungarian you meet) has an interesting but gruesome etymology, deriving from an extremely painful method of execution practised by the Ottoman Turks, who ruled much of Hungary from 1541 to 1699.

There are important, occasionally hazardous differences between British and American usages of taboo words. I saw Hugh Grant on the Tonight Show the other day describe someone as a "wanker," then add smugly: "I can say that on TV over here because you Americans don't know what it means." Jay Leno assured him that Americans do know what "wanker" means; but I suspect that Hugh Grant's confidence is well founded, at any rate outside showbiz circles. The Cockney rhyming slang for this term, by the way, is "merchant banker"; so should you hear a Londoner attach that job description when speaking of some third person, you should not assume that the person spoken of is necessarily one whom you could approach about financing your pet business project.

It is, of course, the f-word that commands most attention. This premier English obscenity has been around since at least 1503, when it showed up in a Scottish poem. (The popular idea that it is Anglo-Saxon in origin has not been proved; it is just as likely that it derives from Latin or Scandinavian.) After all these centuries it has become so versatile that it can now be adapted to just about any part of speech — noun, verb, adjective or adverb. This was illustrated by an incident in WW2, when Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was being driven across the North African desert. His vehicle convoy passed a jeep stalled by the roadside in 120 degrees of heat, with a sweating mechanic trying to fix its engine. Monty pulled over and in his breezy way enquired of the exasperated mechanic: "What seems to be the problem here, Corporal?" Reply: "Beggin' your pardon, Sir, the popping popper's popped."

The fact that, for all the upheavals of the Sexual Revolution, and for all the efforts of Lenny Bruce and his imitators, the taboo words are still taboo, really calls for some explanation. Personally I think it is an illustration of the fine conservative principle that human nature has no history. We need a zone of linguistic taboos just as much in 2004 as we did in 1964. We are willing to permit some encroachments here and there, some minor rearrangements, but we are certainly not going to surrender the general principle, as Bruce urged us to.

Just about the time Lenny Bruce was promoting the idea that unrestrained use of taboo words was progressive, liberating, and life-enhancing, two very different comedians were already asserting traditional good sense on this topic by spoofing such cant. In the long run, it seems to me, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann got the better of Lenny Bruce in this particular argument.

Ma's out, Pa's out,
Let's talk rude —
Pee po belly bum drawers!
Dance round the garden in the nude,
Pee po belly bum drawers!
Let's write rude words all down our street,
Stick out our tongues at the people we meet,
Let's have an intellectual treat —
Pee po belly bum,
Belly belly belly bum,
Pee po belly bum drawers!

                       — P** P* B**** B** D******, by Flanders and Swann

[Note on "po." The chamber pot was a common utensil in English homes until the adoption of central heating around 1970. It was considered a comical object, spoken reference to which was mildly improper, and the common slang term for it was "po." This may be the origin of the term "po-faced," referring to a person who takes himself too seriously — who has a face as round and expressionless as a chamber pot, and cannot see what a joke he is to others. No, I agree that isn't very plausible; but it's no worse than any of the other etymologies for "po-faced" that I've seen.]