Read This Bleeping Column

David Harsanyi
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Posted: Dec 12, 2008 12:01 AM
Read This Bleeping Column

Some experts claim that the English language contains nearly a million words -- approximately 30 of them classified as curses. In Ephesians 4:29, it clearly states, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths."

Still, every now and then, filthy language can come in handy.

My first foray into journalism was under the tutelage of a legendary sportscaster, whose genteel face and grandfatherly advice brought him much adulation. So you can imagine that I was floored when on my first day at the office, the man unleashed a cluster bomb of expletives that could have sent Samuel L. Jackson recoiling in horror.

Nevertheless, he made a point, and I never forgot it. Since then, I have remained an enthusiastic proponent of (selective) explicit language. Sometimes there are no gracious words to convey your emotions properly. And like most of you, I've heard expletives my entire life. It's really not all that scandalous.

Then again, we also may agree that in certain places -- such as San Quentin and Illinois -- profanity is overutilized as verbs, adjectives and articles, stultifying the impact of otherwise-outstanding cuss words.

When Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is heard on federal wiretaps advocating the firing of Chicago Tribune editorial writers, at one point he says: "Our recommendation is fire all those f------ people. Get 'em the f--- out of there, and get us some editorial support."

In this case, the profanity punctuates the seriousness of Blago's desire to dismiss antagonist members of the Chicago press. Assertive. Effective. I get it. After that, I'm afraid, things get out of hand.

"These f------ are telling me that I have to suck it up for two years and give motherf------ Obama his senator pick. F--- him. For nothing? F--- him. I'll put some d----- b-- in the Senate before I just give (Senate candidate No. 1) a f------ Senate seat and I don't get anything."

You see, here, gratuitous use of the F-word -- in all its incarnations -- has transformed a perfectly respectable attempt at bribery into an unintelligible tirade, which overall exposes a man on the abyss of a Joe Pesci moment.

The extraordinary aspect to this is that I am only subjected to this kind of language watching Quentin Tarantino films and reading FBI transcripts of elected officials. What's surprising, as well, is that this lingo, as crass as it is, elicited very few complaints from the general public.

When the infamous tapes of Richard Nixon were first released to the public, in addition to hearing White House scheming, Americans were faced with the reality that presidents dish out profanity like football players. It was shocking.

Nixon, in fact, apologized for using naughty words, saying that while he had heard "other presidents use very earthy language in the Oval Office" (biographers claim that John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were the masters), he also "had the bad judgment to have it on tape."

An Associated Press-Ipsos study found that 74 percent of Americans "frequently" or "occasionally" hear people cursing in public and believe the use of profanity is on the rise in the nation.

Maybe profanity is now on the surface of society rather than on the rise. Maybe the mythical America of linguistic purity is fading forever. Maybe it never existed in the first place. No matter what, it's not the end of the world.

The Federal Communications Commission recently brought a case before the Supreme Court that tackled the issue of obscene words on radio and television broadcasts during daytime and early evening hours. At the time, Justice Antonin Scalia joked, "Bawdy jokes are OK if they are really good."

This comment upset some culture warriors, but the point may be more insightful than it seems. Curses can be funny. And adults can handle dirty words. Adults, for the most part, understand when curses are appropriate and when they aren't. There is a right time and place for everything.

The wrong place? A federal wiretap, for instance. Or in front of your innocent 5-year-old daughter -- who then proceeds to build a song around the F-word to perform for your wife.

Hey, &-!$ happens.