Sewer Language

Posted: October 19, 2007 in Culture, Manners, Tacky

An opinion column in the Petosky News-Review addressess the question “What purpose does profane language serve?” The treatment is relatively brief and practically begs the question whether there aren’t more important things to worry about. At first blush, there are most pressing issues, and manners or propriety isn’t among the top priorities for most people anymore. However, I keep coming across statements by thinkers better than me that huge, intractable problems stay unaddressed and unsolved because they’re so formidable and remote. What really matters and motivates behavior (and changes to behavior) are things that are immediate and personal, such as our relationships with other people and our daily habits of perception and attitude.

The author of the article linked to above, Jim Grisso, construes the use of what he calls sewer language partially as a free speech issue but more fundamentally as an irritant to him and his wife. That’s personal enough, to be sure, but doesn’t make me care much. My greater concern is the idea that, as with food, if it’s garbage in, then it’s garbage out. Our daily diet of profanity is now such a large part of the language, now that proper usage and even having something to say — as opposed to merely giving attitude — have eroded to a considerable degree, that it’s inevitable for the garbage we hear all day (receptive speech) to be recycled in what little we have to say (expressive speech). But there’s worse, of course. The ultrautility of profanity to express paradoxically everything and nothing (fuck that or that’s shit) robs language of content. Run this social experiment (using volumes of profanity in everyday language) for even a couple generations and it’s clear that lots of folks (kids and adults) can’t form a coherent sentence with or without profanity. So a simple concept like “begging the question” (see above) passes over them as so much noise, entirely devoid of meaning.

One could argue that the state of the world, the country, the states, cities, and communities is so dismal that rebellious and profane language is warranted. Well, duh … yes! What use is it, though, when hearing those words no longer produces even the slightest sting in even the most prudish ears, that sewer language is just a mild irritant? What use is it when language is degraded in everyday use to the point that a large percentage of the population is immune to and unmoved by any sort of nuanced usage and can’t recognize when they’re being duped, lied to, manipulated, and patronized? In short, it represents a significant decline from our former stature, though in fairness it wasn’t always possible to find widespread literacy and well-spoken everymen. For this reason (and others), I can’t help believing we’re on the precipice of another dark age.

  1. greywhitie says:

    i wonder which is worse, trashy language or euphemism. i guess you have to talk to your audience at his/her/their level, not talk down or kiss ass. my personal experience has been that we mimic the language of those around us. spend a semester or year in england, and you’ll talk like a british chap. spend some time in the american south, and you’ll start saying things like “y’all come over to my house now” and “that dog won’t hunt.” you get the idea. kids who watch too much trashy tv or hang out with trashy crowds will talk trashy. toddlers who are read shakespeare will start saying things like “mommy, this is the winter of our discontent.”

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