I’m a huge fan of the English language. Both of my regular readers can testify that nobody enjoys a well-turned phrase as much as I do. It’s said that imitation is the highest form of flattery, and it’s no secret I’ve stolen my share of well-turned phrases over the years … and maybe even turned a few of my own.
Sometimes, a well-turned phrase includes the use of colorful language. As a sailor and a humor columnist I firmly believe that swearing is to language what herbs and spices are to food; used properly it’s the seasoning that makes the flavor but when used improperly or with a heavy hand it just leave a bad taste in your mouth.
Let’s face it, nobody would have remembered Admiral Farragut if he had said, “Darn those torpedoes, full speed ahead!” When Mel Brookes said, “I’ve been accused of vulgarity. I say that’s bullsh**.” it was comic genius. Had he said that he’d been accused of vulgarity and he begged to differ, no one would have noticed, and let’s face it, that just wouldn’t be Mel Brooks!
Author Jarod Kintz wrote, “I just stepped in sh** and now I’ve got political rhetoric all over my shoes.” That’s funny because it’s true but it’s funnier because he seasoned it perfectly. It’s grown up humor so saying he stepped in poop would not have been appropriate and stepping in excrement would have sounded clinical. In this context it was colorful language and anyone who tells you different is full of crap … so to speak.
While I believe that profanity has its place in a well told adult story, I’m not a fan of crude language used out of place or for shock value. I cringe when I hear F-bombs dropped in public forums or in mixed company. I was raised by a convicted felon and spent most of my adult life stationed aboard aircraft carriers, so if your language is making me cringe, you may be a bit over the top.
If you’re not sure if you’re in an appropriate setting to drop an F-bomb take a quick look around; if you’re not in a locker room, foxhole, in a cellblock or aboard a warship then you’re not in the right setting. If you are not dong hard time, engaged in mortal combat, in a crashing train, plane or automobile or just introduced to your date’s husband then it’s not the right time for an F-bomb.
In 1972 the late great George Carlin famously listed the seven words you could never say on TV. These days at least three of those words are heard regularly on network TV and, if you pay a little extra, you can hear them all on premium cable networks. Carlin, like Mel Brooks, was a comic genius and didn’t crudely spew vulgarity, but rather, brilliantly used the language to make us laugh at ourselves.
At the risk of sounding like an old guy (OK, it may be too late for that) I think too many writers and comedians these days mistake vulgarity for comedy. When a fourth grade boy tries to sound adult and calls someone a #*$&head, it’s kind of funny to the other fourth graders. When an adult calls someone a #*$&head, it’s not funny, it just makes him sound like a fourth grader.
Dave Barry has made a good living as a humor columnist by using the word “booger” frequently and in some very creative ways and I admit that I have made a dollar or two using the words “poop” and “freakin’” in slightly less creative ways. While it is true that these words might well make a fourth grader giggle, I’d argue that the trick to telling a funny story is being an adult using language appropriate for a fourth grader rather than the other way around.
Then again, I’m an old sailor and I’ve heard the pro’s swear in waterfront bars around the world, so maybe I’m just intolerant of hearing it done poorly. Mark Twain once said, “If I cannot swear in Heaven I shall not stay there.” I say @*#$!%&-A, Mr. Twain! If Mark Twain cannot swear in Heaven then I shall not stay there either!
Rick Seley is an award-winning humor columnists. He may be reached at email@example.com.