Cultural Caviar

Swearing Up and Down

August 04, 2017

The coarsening of language is evidence not only of a coarsening of social manners and an indifference to other people’s feelings but also of a coarsening and narrowing of thought. There are circumstances in which this is understandable. Nobody has ever expected soldiers to speak among themselves as they might speak to their grandmothers or maiden aunts (if there were still such a person as a maiden aunt). Swearing in jest has always been common as an exchange between friends. We can all recognize this.

Yet I think it is worrying when men and women in public life appear to believe that foul language makes them seem tough and impressive. This suggests that either they have very little sense—no sense indeed—of how people will receive what they say, or that they simply don’t care. It’s not only common swearwords that are more usual; it’s what used to be classed as sexual obscenities, too, Mr. Scaramucci’s remarks about Steve Bannon being a good example. Did he think that accusing Mr. Bannon of engaging in auto-fellatio made him sound good himself? You may say, of course, that he thought he was engaging in a private conversation, but so what?

It’s curious, of course, that the public use of language, which used to be confined to the locker room, is common now at a time when in other respects we are all supposed to be more scrupulous in avoiding words now deemed incorrect because likely to offend others. But there it is. We live in a society that seems to get stupider and sillier by the year. Well, it’s probably futile to complain. One might as well try to sweep the Atlantic back with a brush. Laughter, as so often, is perhaps the best response. There was Mr. Scaramucci breathing the old fire and brimstone, and before he knows where he is, the door has revolved and he’s flat on his back on the pavement. What a fool he looks! How we laugh at him!

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