Questioning the Quantified Life   /   Summer 2020   /    Signifiers

Expletive Defeated

We need more profanity? Aren’t we already being inundated with it?

Wilfred M. McClay

THR illustration.

The work of cultural criticism never ends. A hundred years ago, Thomas R. Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s vice president, proclaimed that “what this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar.” But who would say that now? Times have changed, tobacco has become an evil weed, and anyway, what the country needs now is a really good four-letter word.

No, I’m not talking about love, although that would be a decent guess, since love is highly desirable and always in short supply. I’m talking about the primordial human need for the genuinely dirty word, or, better yet, a few of them, a finite but reliable stock of good old-fashioned profanities—racy, pungent, transgressive, maybe even a bit radioactive. Words that can shock, provoke, even lead to a barroom brawl.

I hear you, gentle reader, saying that surely I must be kidding. We need more profanity? Aren’t we already being inundated with it? Aren’t we bombarded by f-bombs and c-shells and s-streams every hour of the day, whether from the television screen or from those ear-stabbing automotive boom-boxes that pass us in the streets? Don’t the current and recent New York Times bestseller lists include such deathless titles as The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck, F*ck Feelings, and Unf*ck Yourself, with the somewhat more elegant You Are a Badass rounding out the field?

And don’t we hear this particular f-word salting and peppering the speech of almost everyone these days, men and women alike, even in professional settings, whether used as an all-purpose intensifier—a “big f*cking deal” was Vice President Joe Biden’s gloss on the Affordable Care Act—or a semantically empty expression meant to convey one’s righteous anger—“I’m not going to let him f*cking ruin this project!” Locker rooms and military barracks have always resounded with such talk, but it is no longer restricted to these settings. We live in a society in which even well-behaved soccer moms demand “WTF?” in their texting exchanges. Apparently even “Hell!” is no longer a sufficiently strong expletive for them. Or maybe the acronym’s referents mean nothing in particular to them. That’s equally possible.

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