Listen up, Grandpa: in honor of recent news out of the Anthony Weiner campaign, including last week’s weirdly profane intern-bashing, I’m devoting this post to the topic of touchy language and its various deployments. The lexicographer Eric Partridge observed that “war is the greatest excitant of vocabulary”; political campaigns, spoken of over the past fifty years in increasingly militarized terms (“war chest,” “war room”) may be clocking in at a close second.
Still, when it comes to politics, we don’t seem to have quite yet hit the point of desensitization. For an example of how this has happened in the realm of war, I turn to Keith Allan and Kate Burridge’s book Euphemism & Dysphemism: Language Used As Shield and Weapon. (The term “dysphemism” here refers to basically the opposite of a euphemism. Where euphemisms employ neutral language to sanitize the unseemly, dysphemisms are substituted for more neutral terminology precisely because of their potential to offend. For example, Barbara Morgan, Weiner’s communications director, employed the dysphemism “slutbag” to mean something like “a female intern I dislike.” A political blogger for Slate then commented on Morgan’s use of “the less-used slutbag,” which I believe is a euphemistic way of saying, “slutbag: a goofy slur that kind of sounds like she made it up on the spot.”)
Allan and Burridge discuss, among other topics, the possibility that incessant use of a dysphemism will strip it of its shock value, with the neutral counterpart becoming the more charged term. They quote here a 1931 study of the use of the modifier “fucking” by British soldiers in World War I: “Far from being an intensive to express strong emotion it became merely conventional excrescence. . . . It became so common that an effective way for the soldier to express emotion was to omit this word. Thus if a sergeant said, ‘Get your -ing rifles!’ it was understood as a matter of routine. But if he said, ‘Get your rifles!’ there was an immediate implication of emergency and danger.”
For those of us who teach writing, it may be particularly helpful to delve into the question of where the tipping point lies. After all, students who are new to writing often ask how much latitude they have to use offensive language in their pieces for workshop, both out of a desire to comply with the rules of the classroom and out of uncertainty as to whether various words will bolster or hinder their ability to express themselves as artists. And so it seems important to find a framework for talking to students about how to use offensive language in a way that feels legitimately powerful, rather than either purely distasteful or mundane.
One possible answer comes, again, from politics. In Geoffrey Hughes’s Swearing, a comprehensive study of provocative language in English, Hughes discusses how twentieth-century politicians have been advantaged or disadvantaged by their language choices. Hughes writes that presidents who have demonstrated “the common touch” fare well in the polls. Truman’s popularity derived in part from his willingness to make plainspoken public statements like, “I fired MacArthur because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was.”
Nixon, on the other hand, lost favor with the public in part because of his excessive reliance on offensive language in the Watergate tapes. Bad language is welcomed when it’s seen as indicative of directness and clarity, but disfavored when its use serves the sole purpose of catharsis on the part of the speaker. As Hughes puts it, in politics, “there is a fine but important line between straight talk and low talk.” Might this particular formulation also be useful in a writing classroom? Maybe fucking so.