April 30, 2004


When everybody sounds like Tony Soprano: Expletives are fine, if used sparingly. But overuse has reduced them to little more than "you knows." (Theodore Roszak, 4/30/04, CS Monitor)

When the new HBO series "Deadwood" premiered, I was delightfully surprised to hear a TV critic on National Public Radio make a point of knocking its wildly excessive use of obscenities - even before he got around to offering the show a positive review. At last, I thought, a display of good critical judgment.

Don't mistake me. I write in defense of the expletive. Every language needs its dirty words. They are the cayenne pepper of speech, available to communicate uncontrollable fury, irreverence, or vulgar insolence. But the undeleted F-expletive is the most obvious literary vice of our day.

I'm sure social authenticity would be the justification offered by filmmakers for drowning their audience in dirty words. Martin Scorsese, whose 1990 "Goodfellas" raised expletive usage to new levels, would no doubt insist that movies about gangsters or prizefighters simply wouldn't sound real without salty language. Poor excuse. There is a name for work that indulges in mind-numbing and predictable repetition, whether the words are clean or dirty. We call it "bad writing."

Good writing sparkles, even when it gives voice to characters who are grossly inarticulate. There is a well-developed body of work that does a brilliant job of injecting wit into degraded English. The warriors who fill Shakespeare's history plays were doubtlessly as foul-mouthed as soldiers and gangsters in our time, but the bard didn't need to wallow in obscenity to make them come alive. And think of Charles Dickens, Ring Lardner, or even David Mamet - before he, too, joined the smut parade.

Today it doesn't matter who's talking: Everybody sounds like Tony Soprano.

We don't have many rules for our comments sections, but there's one we do try to enforce strictly: no profanity. People who know us find this odd, because, like any sons of a clergyman, the Brothers Judd are as profane as longshoremen. However--and maybe this is delusional--it seems that written swearing is less excusable than oral, if for no other reason than that you've time and chance to erase the words that make you sound like an ass.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 30, 2004 8:05 AM

Doesn't the last violate the rule?

Posted by: Chris at April 30, 2004 8:50 AM

In defense of the Deadwood writers, I have been in environments where certain obscenties have become mere verbal ticks. (Although I don't think I have yet heard anyone use the f-word as an adverb...)

To me, the dialog sounds authentic.

BTW--I very much appreciate your no profanity rule.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at April 30, 2004 9:40 AM


See our Glossary for the Most Profane Sentence Ever Spoken:


Posted by: oj at April 30, 2004 9:50 AM


It's not in the comments.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at April 30, 2004 10:33 AM

Shucky darn and what the hey...I was all dadgummed ready to use lots of those flippin' words.

Posted by: Casey Abell at April 30, 2004 11:11 AM


Nope, sound like a ...err, whatever is pure donkey talk.

Posted by: Peter B at April 30, 2004 11:56 AM

Obscenities are generic intensifiers for the inarticulate. It's discriminatory to exclude them.

Wasn't it Sam Clemens who suggested that a writer should change all the "damn"s to "very"s and then go through and remove all the "very"s as redundant?

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at April 30, 2004 12:06 PM

Can anyone recall even one character from film or novels who had a foul mouth and is an inspiration, model or archetype to anyone over twenty?

Posted by: Peter B at April 30, 2004 12:14 PM



Posted by: oj at April 30, 2004 12:20 PM


Yes, and I seem to recall Ulysses Grant as well. I guess there are special rules for soldiers and sports' coaches.

Posted by: Peter B at April 30, 2004 1:04 PM

To get back to what Chris asked in the first comment:

IMO, no. I take it to be equivalent to "donkey", which is an old simile for stupidity; cf. Dickens' famous dictum "The law is an ass". Actually, to get to the profane meaning, you really should spell the word differently; it's a peculiarity of American English that the word in question has diverged to two such different meanings which ultimately converge onto themselves in the same meaning...but this is beginning to make my head ache.

Posted by: Joe at May 1, 2004 7:32 PM