An awesome article. I'll be looking for the book ;D Shared under the provisions of Sec. 29 of the copyright act.
Melissa Mohr: Bringing trench talk home
Republish ReprintReprintsRepublish OnlineRepublish OfflineMelissa Mohr, Special to National Post | 13/06/14
In a new book, Melissa Mohr traces the migration of cursing from the trenches to the homefront, to movies and TV.
A young soldier comes home to his family after World War II. His grandmother asks him how his time in the army was. The truth is that he has seen many men, friends and enemies, die horrible deaths, and he returns with a heavy heart. He doesn’t want to burden his family, though, so he says, “The boys sure were funny, Grandma — they had so many great jokes.” “Tell us one, tell us one,” his family begs. He says, “Oh, I can’t do that. You see, the boys also used an awful lot of bad language.” His family really wants to hear a joke, though, so someone suggests that he just say “blank” whenever he comes to a bad word. He agrees, and tells a joke: “Blank blank blank blankity blank. Blank blank blank blank, blankity blanking blank blank. Blanking blankity blanking blank, blank blank blank blank f-ck.”
I will confess that this is my favorite joke. I love the idea that there are so many words more unsayable than f-ck. What could these be? But the joke also suggests that language changed as a result of the war, that some words started to be considered less obscene than they had been in the Victorian era, and that — like bloody and bugger — they started to re-enter the world of public discourse. Some scholars have argued that during and after the World Wars, people began to swear more than they had in the past. The particular horrors of these wars — the constant threat of death by poison gas and machine guns, trench warfare, incendiary bombing — led to feelings of rage and helplessness that needed an outlet in frequent swearing. Soldiers brought what they heard in the barracks and in the field home with them and into print (and later radio and TV) to a degree that hadn’t been seen before.
The f-word was so common in foxholes that if a sergeant failed to use it, the troops knew they were in real danger
Swearing in the armed forces was so ubiquitous that f-ck really wasn’t such a bad word. John Brophy and Eric Partridge, who in 1930 published a collection of British songs and slang from the First World War, claimed that soldiers used f-cking so often that it began to mean nothing more than “a warning that a noun is coming.” “It became so common,” they explain, “that an effective way for the soldier to express emotion was to omit this word. Thus if a sergeant said,‘Get your f-cking rifles!’ it was understood as a matter of routine. But if he said, ‘Get your rifles!’ there was an immediate implication of urgency and danger.”
The soldiers brought this language home to Grandma. Simultaneously, a new, more realistic style of reporting was taking hold that recorded the speech men actually used on the battlefield, obscenities and all.Robert Graves’s 1929 memoir Goodbye to All That, for example, records soldierly swearing mostly with euphemisms and elisions: “Sir, he called me a double effing c——.” In his 1948 war novel The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer famously substituted fug and fugging, leading Tallulah Bankhead to quip upon meeting him, “So you’re the young man who can’t spell f-ck.” Fug was back to f-ck a few years later when James Jones published From Here to Eternity in 1951, though he had to cut his f-cks down from 258 in the manuscript to only 50 in the final book. But whether they spelled obscenities out nakedly, hid them with dashes and dots, or cloaked them as fug or effing, these best-selling writers and reporters brought obscenities out into the public sphere where they hadn’t appeared for centuries.
F-ck, to take just one obscene word, was by the Second World War used with much of its modern variety: dumbf-ck, (I don’t give a) flying f-ck, motherf-cker, and motherf-cking.
What the brave members of the Greatest Generation started, the counterculture of the 1960s finished off. “In the 1960s,” as Geoffrey Hughes puts it, “the floodgates opened” — those Victorian walls of shame were breached. The Vietnam War also helped to increase public swearing, since protesters made it a point to use obscene language — the phrase “F-ck the draft” was the subject of an important court case in 1971 — to express their rage at the government.
When talking about post-war America and Britain, it becomes more and more difficult to pick out the really important causes of societal change. We could discuss film production codes, radio and TV broadcast licensing, the baby boom and increasing numbers of people becoming middle class and thus more permissive (or “a change of emphasis from a production-based economy to a consumption-based one,” which “has been assumed to have affected a change in attitudes, with continence being rejected in favour of indulgence,” as one scholar puts it), dozens of court cases that eroded laws against obscenity, Mary Whitehouse and the Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (which campaigned in Britain for strict TV broadcasting standards), declining church attendance, and the growing importance of black culture, with its game of “the dozens,” rap music and hip-hop.
When graffiti collector Allen Walker Read published his groundbreaking article on f-ck in 1934, he declared that it was ‘the word that has the deepest stigma of any in the language’
Whatever the particular causes, by the beginning of the 21st century, people had gotten used to seeing and talking about naked bodies and sex acts again, in movies, on TV and in pornographic (and “ordinary”) magazines sold openly on newsstands. We have reached a point where we are comfortable enough with sexual swearing that we no longer consider the old obscenities to be the worst words in the English language. When graffiti collector Allen Walker Read published his groundbreaking article on f-ck (“An Obscenity Symbol”) in 1934, he declared that it was “the word that has the deepest stigma of any in the language.” By the 1990s, however, many people in America were making the same argument for “nigger” or, in Britain, “paki.” Christopher Darden, a prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson trial, called “nigger” the “filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language.” And Dictionary.com declares that “’nigger’ is now probably the most offensive word in English.” Given the depth of feeling about the n-word, it is perhaps surprising to see how recently it achieved its taboo status. It is only within the last 60 years or so that it has become a word that offends (or is supposed to offend) everyone, not just the people who are its targets, and that should not be used in polite speech.
A story about the 1939 film Gone with the Wind illustrates the recentness of this change in attitudes. There is a familiar anecdote about swearing in the film — that producer David Selznick was fined $5,000 because Rhett Butler walks out on Scarlett O’Hara at the end of the movie with the words “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Actually, the film production code had changed shortly before the movie’s release, so Selznick was never fined. As with Eliza Doolittle’s “Not bloody likely!,” “I don’t give a damn” was more of a scandal manqué than a real cause of concern.
The fact that hundreds of people objected to the filmmakers’ decision to use the n-word shows that by the 1940s there was a growing sense that it was out of bounds
The real, less well-known scandal involved the word nigger. The producers of the film wanted to preserve the “true southern flavour” of the book and so decided to include dialogue in which various characters use the word — Mammy speaking disapprovingly of “shiftless niggers,” for example. The 1930 Motion Picture Production Code forbade the use of profanity in films, including “God, Lord, Jesus, Christ — unless used reverently — Hell, S.O.B., damn, Gawd” (except when a quotation from a literary work, hence the exception for Rhett’s “damn”). It outlawed “obscenity in word, gesture, reference, song, joke, or by suggestion (even when likely to be understood only by part of the audience).” It stipulated that “the use of the Flag shall be consistently respectful.” It even mandated that “the treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy.” But it did not forbid or discourage the use of racial epithets. Only when the film’s African American actors refused to say the word and hundreds of letters poured in objecting to its use did producer Selznick agree to take it out of the script.
The fact that hundreds of people objected to the filmmakers’ decision to use the n-word shows that by the 1940s there was a growing sense that it was out of bounds, an offensive word that no one should say. But while the n-word was becoming more and more taboo across a broader swath of society, there were still pockets of resistance. As late as 1992 (and presumably today as well), a genteel elderly white woman could tell her neighbour in North Carolina that she was looking for a “yard nigger.” (This particular lady happened to be speaking to a philosopher interested in derogatory speech, and so her words were recorded for posterity.) While such a person would most likely shrink from using sexual obscenities and profane oaths, she had no problem casually dropping America’s worst racial slur. For her, having grown up white in the American South, that was simply what one called black people; the term “carried no explicit contempt” (though plenty of condescension) and was not meant to shock or be impolite. She simply wanted someone to do her yard work; the term for such a person in her racially stratified world was “yard nigger.”
Melissa Mohr has recently been dividing her time between writing a book about swearing and hiding it from her kids. She received a Ph.D. in English Literature from Stanford University, specializing in Medieval and Renaissance literature. This extract is from Holy Sh*t: a Brief History of Swearing (Oxford University Press, 2013), Copyright © Oxford University Press, 2013.