June 25, 2006

Obscenity as commodity

Coincidentally enough, two opinion pieces — one British and one American — were published in Sunday's papers, both tackling the issue of public obscenity. And even more coincidentally, pundits on opposite sides of the Atlantic arrived at roughly the same conclusion: obscene words should be largely kept out of public discourse, but not because they're inherently vile or worthless. On the contrary, both columns argue that taboo words are precious commodities that lose their value when overused.

The British piece appeared as an editorial (or "leader") in the Guardian's Sunday Observer, inspired by two recent cases of public obscenity on Britain's airwaves. In the first incident, BBC host Jonathan Ross asked Conservative Party leader David Cameron whether he had ever "wanked over" Margaret Thatcher. (A helpful explanation of the context can be found here.) The second incident involved the use of the word fuck on the UK version of the reality show "Big Brother." The editorialist complains that such language should not be so common on television:

The problem comes with overuse. Words are a commodity, cheapened when supply runs unchecked. For an expletive to have dramatic effect, it must come in the context of otherwise sober discourse. If every broadcast is peppered with expletives, our language is impoverished.

The American piece is by Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach. To paraphrase a recent Associated Press poll question, Achenbach is thinking specifically about the F-word. He considers the FCC's conflicting rulings on the use of fuck and consults with F-word chronicler Jesse Sheidlower, but his conclusions are ultimately quite similar to that of the Guardian's (albeit in a more tongue-in-cheek tone).

The F-word remains taboo. But just barely. We may be entering an era in which this fabled vulgarity is on its way to becoming just another word — its transgressive energy steadily sapped by overuse.
From hip-hop artists to bloggers to the vice president of the United States, everyone's dropping the F-bomb. Young people in particular may not grasp how special this word has been in the past. They may not realize how, like an old sourdough starter, the word has been lovingly preserved over the centuries and passed from generation to generation. For the good of human communication we must come together, as a people, to protect this word, and ensure that, years from now, it remains obscene.

Unlike his British counterpart, Achenbach is unable to use the word fuck in his column, even citationally, resorting to the usual avoidance strategies of "the F-bomb," "the F-word," and eff. But his admiration for the word in all its unexpurgated glory shines through:

The reason it must be suppressed in polite society is not because it's a bad word, but because, in certain circumstances, it is a very good word. It is a solidly built word of just four letters, bracketed by rock-hard consonants. It is not a mushy word, but one with sharp edges. Consider how clunky the term "the F-word" is. The authentic article, by contrast, explodes into space from a gate formed by the upper incisors and the lower lip. Then it slams to a dramatic glottal cough.

I'm afraid I don't quite see how the labiodental fricative /f/ is a "rock-hard consonant" — seems pretty soft to me. Also, I'm not sure what a "dramatic glottal cough" is exactly — perhaps Achenbach, true to his name, pronounces the final consonant in fuck with a German-style velar fricative as in ach and Bach, or maybe he uses something even more guttural than that. More likely this folk-phonetic description is simply a way to invest fuck with a "natural" explosiveness, as evidence that it is a special word for special occasions.

While we're handing out obscenity-related thesis ideas, here's another one. If swear words are highly valued commodities, then how are those commodities fetishized, as Marx would put it, through avoidance and suppression? What are the limits on the circulation of taboo lexical items if they are to retain their special transgressive value? And is that transgressive value lessened when opinion-makers laud a supposedly "bad" word as actually "very good," thus transforming its prestige from covert to overt?

Censorship is one surefire way to keep those valued lexical commodities out of circulation. And a Christian activist group in North Carolina is doing its part to heighten the totemic power of "bad language" by limiting access to it. The group, known as Called2Action, has banded together with local parents to challenge the Wake County school district's use of five books — including Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, edited by British slangologist extraordinaire Jonathon Green. (Cassell's is an invaluable resource for the study of all manner of vulgarisms, as I noted in my previous post, "Twonk!") The Raleigh News & Observer and the local ABC affiliate have the story of the parents' objections.

If nothing else, the complaint serves as excellent publicity for the newly published second edition of Cassell's. News has even traveled back to the UK, as the Guardian recently ran a story on the Wake County kerfuffle. The Guardian actually gave Cassell's an added boost by saying that the school district has already "banned" the dictionary, even though use of Cassell's has thus far only been challenged. There's no word yet on whether Wake County officials will really ban Cassell's, but if they do, it would be a badge of honor for the dictionary's creators, not to mention a boon to their sales. In this day and age when collegiate dictionaries routinely cover all the usual four-letter profanities, a banned dictionary must have some pretty juicy entries, right? Clearly, obscene language still carries the potential to shock, even in serious-minded works of lexicography.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at June 25, 2006 06:14 AM