The Vulgar Tongue

The editors of America Magazine have slipped on their shoulder pads and sharpened up their cleats in order to tackle runaway vulgarity among our youngsters:

The veteran Catholic editor A. E. P. (Ed) Wall begins his Easter message: “Jesus Christ, whose name is heard in careless expletives by the vocabulary-challenged in TV and film, we know you as Eternal.” He’s on to something.

The status of a language determines the status of a culture. And contemporary culture seems less capable of dealing with what words like Jesus Christ and God really mean. In the old catechesis Catholics categorized bad language as vulgar (“Hell,” “damn” and bathroom expletives), profane (“God damn it!”) and obscene (the F word, etc.). But now we can hear “Jesus Christ” on television talk shows—“Jesus, Christ, I was so drunk that night that…”—or on subway cars—“Jesus Christ, who does he think he is?”

And “O my God!” has been twittered down to “OMG,” which simply signals astonishment, indignation or ridicule. Words that traditionally have reached out in prayer—“O my God, save me from this situation”—are trivialized to express passing annoyance: “OMG, my hair is a mess.”

What can be done? Not much, formally. It would not help for the bishops in concert to condemn vulgarity, profanity or even obscenity, as if all expletives were sinful. God is not hurt. But we are. When we diminish the full meaning of sacred words, we diminish ourselves and cut ourselves off from our meanings.

General George S. Patton once said that no man deserved to call himself a gentleman unless he could swear for thee minutes without repeating himself. (If that be true, then I qualify as a Landgraf and Elector of the Holy Roman Empire.) But meeting the general’s standards requires requires a certain virtuosity. A person would have to choose and cull his cusswords with a jeweler’s eye.

If Patton heard the kind of dull, repetitive swearing that so vexes the editors’ ears, some kid would end up slapped, if not shot with an ivory-handled pistol. Any word repeated by rote, with no thought given to its meaning or the context, marks the speaker as a dolt. That goes for swear words, for Our Lord’s name, and especially for academic and corporate loanwords like “dichotomy,” and “paradigm.” He who indulges sounds no more sophisticated than my great-grandmother — born in the last year of Queen Victoria’s reign — who began, maintained and ended conversations by clicking her tongue in her cheek and mumbling, “Well, for heaven’s sake.”

I charge myself with overusing foreign words. Last Sunday, I managed to mar a 1,400-word tribute to my mother by referring both to her sang-froid, and to her principled rejection of the grand monde. Why I did this, I don’t know — it’s not like I speak too little English to say she was unflappable and hated yuppies. No, I probably wanted to sound like some late-19th century poet with an absinthe problem and a weirdly colored carnation in his lapel. (Note: I didn’t say décadent, or refer to the fin de siècle; I’m getting better.)

Anyone wanting to spice up his language in a way that would agree with the prissiest comment filter should consult The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. It promises “buckish slang,” “pickpocket wit” and “university eloquence” — all of which would be quite intelligible to the Founding Fathers, Beau Brummell, or Sir Edmund Blackadder. Best of all, none, if any, of the constituent idioms would give any offense today; indeed, editors bowdlerized anything that contemporaries would have considered beyond the pale.

A sampler platter:

Bartholomew Baby: A person dressed up in a tawdry manner, like the dolls or babies sold at Bartholomew fair.

Blue devils: low spirits.

Blanket hornpipe: The amorous congress.


Dog in a doublet:
A daring, resolute fellow.

Herring-gutted: Thin, as a shotten herring.

Nose gent: A nun.

Thornback: An old maid.

Vicar of Bray: One who changes his principles, always siding with the stronger party.

Brim (Abbreviation for Brimstone): An abandoned woman; perhaps originally only a passionate or irascible woman, compared to brimstone for its volatility.

Brisket Beater: A Roman Catholic. See Breast Fleet and Craw Thumper.

Word of Mouth: To drink by word of mouth, i.e., out of the bowl or bottle instead of a glass.

Foreman of the Jury: One who engrosses all the talk to himself, or who speaks for the rest of the company.

Prattling box: A pulpit.

People don’t seem to have gotten any more or less imaginative since those days. “Kings’ pictures” meant “coins” — a perfect analog to “dead presidents.”


Browse Our Archives