U.S. Sen. Carl Levin repeatedly quotes the phrase "sh--ty deal" from a Goldman Sachs memo. Rapper Kanye West titles his new album "Good Ass Job." And "son of a bitch" has become a catchphrase on television's popular "Lost."
From Hollywood to Washington, profanity is peppering the lexicon, even in polite company. Not so long ago you couldn't utter the words on TV or print them in newspapers. Today, off-color language has become commonplace, celebrated, even commercialized. Just hours after the news of the scatological shenanigans broke during last week's Senate hearing, T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase went on sale.
Some wordsmiths warn that we are headed toward a future where nothing is bleep-worthy. They worry that changing how we speak may change who we are.
"I'm appalled by the degradation of the language around me," says Silicon Valley poet laureate Nils Peterson, professor emeritus at San Jose State University. "There's a great intimacy between what we say and who we are. "
Other experts suggest that these changes in the idiom are a natural evolution, and not a sign of the coarsening of our culture.
"Etiquette changes. Society is getting more casual and that has a trickle-down effect on language that might be perceived as rude,'' says Elizabeth Howell, a spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute. "A lot of the old rules are absolutely being broken right now."
"The language has always been in a state of flux and
it's always going to hell in a handcart," agrees Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley, who sees the generational chasm, even in his own family. "I am of the generation that thought of 'sucks' and 'dork' as dirty words, but my daughter has no idea. A lot of slang starts with kids because they are naturally more inventive with the language. One class doesn't want to use the same slang as the class before it."
Certainly the ranks of words that once were verboten but now seem ho-hum are growing. Kelly Clarkson was nominated for a Grammy for her pop hit "My Life Would Suck Without You." Hit Girl, the pint-size killing machine in the movie "Kick Ass," is proud of her potty-mouth patois. Even that bastion of good taste, The New Yorker, recently featured a cartoon with two whales bemoaning that they should have "grown feet and kicked ass."
Forgive newspapers such as this one, which declines to print all these words.
"Many of these words are ready to be used in the mainstream; newspapers are just a little behind the times," says San Mateo-based lexicographer Grant Barrett, who edited the Official Dictionary of Unofficial English (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and the Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang (Oxford University Press, 2004). "The frisson of naughtiness wears away when you hear a word 1,000 times," says Barrett, one of the founders of Wordnik, an online dictionary. "I say let's use these words and get people to think about them a little more."
Nevertheless, people make assumptions about who we are based on how we speak.
"If you use language that some people consider offensive, that's a danger," Howell says.
Over time, however, people may get desensitized to a word's origins. For instance, few people remember that "dork" originally referred to the male sex organ.
"The history of a word doesn't guide its usage," Barrett notes.
Certainly pop music and TV have helped push the profanity envelope. "Son of a bitch" is Sawyer's favorite phrase on "Lost." The tough-talking sister on "Dexter" is defined by her raunchy argot. One notable scene on "The Wire" consisted solely of the F-word used as various parts of speech.
"Movie producers and screenwriters and comic book writers want their work to be relevant to the target audience," says Dan Vado, a comic book publisher, who owns SLG Publishing in San Jose, "and one of the ways you do that is by trying to make the language relevant."
The Internet has also played a key role in redefining appropriate language.
"The Internet removes another censor," Peterson says, "and so there's nothing to stop one from spewing forth."
Some experts also point to the influence of Washington, which has traditionally been a source of colorful language. Americans now have a 24/7 diet of politics, thanks to cable TV and C-Span.
"Washington is notorious for its profanity," Barrett says. "It's a tough-talking town."
Dick Cheney made headlines a few years back when he told a senator to "go f--- himself." Vice President Joe Biden famously referred to the health care legislation as a "big f---ing deal."
Referring to a salty phrase by its initials can soften its impact. When President Obama was told he had to give up his BlackBerry for national safety reasons, he quipped "WTF!"
Some linguistic experts ding mainstream-media for stodgy language rules.
"If you leave out words in places where they are appropriate, you are sacrificing authenticity," Barrett says.
Others, however, hail the press for sticking to its standards.
"It's right for a family newspaper not to print some of these words," Nunberg says. "If The New York Times didn't forbid some of these words, how would we know they were transgressive? You've got to draw lines."
For the record, semantics buffs note that "ass" has come full circle. In the 19th century, the word simply meant donkey. Now, of course, it expressly refers to the posterior. Is this bad-ass trend a sign of the times or have people always bemoaned the shifting idiom?
"Language is a cycle. People get outraged and they try to reign things in and then after a while it spikes back up," Howell says. "Is the world a cruder place than it was 20 years ago? Maybe, but it's also true that people have been asking that same question for the last 100 years."
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