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Jim Heffernan column: Use of foul language on rise in US

Wasn’t the world better when, instead of coming right out with a bad word or phrase, mouthing something like “goodness gracious sakes alive” was good enough?

Jim Heffernan
Jim Heffernan
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So many bad words are creeping into the mainstream media lately that I’m becoming concerned we’ll lose some of the euphemisms that have been worthy substitutes for years — all my life, and that’s quite a few years.

Holy smokes! I actually heard the famous F word out loud recited by a U.S. congressman during the Jan. 6 committee hearing. And it shows up elsewhere too, not only on TV but in print in some newspapers and magazines, often with the first letter and asterisks: F*** in quoting the most recent ex-president when he’s “ticked” off. And that’s not the only vulgar term that’s bubbling to the surface and being spouted publicly.

It used to be that you could have the same impact with a substitute word or phrase. Words like “heck” instead of that place down below where the devil lives, or “gosh darn,” the substitute for, well, you know. (You can say what you want about the devil, but there’s no denying that he makes “darn” good chocolate cake and hard-boiled eggs.)

As a good Lutheran boy, I didn’t learn to swear in my growing-up home. No such utterances were ever allowed. As a child I was told swearing was a “sin” and that every time you used a bad word the man upstairs marked it down on a scroll and, well, if enough words got listed, off you go when your time comes to that place where the devil lives and rules. That place was often referred to as “H-E double toothpicks” to avoid using the actual name in polite company.

Holy mackerel! Ending up in “hades” scared the living (you-know-what and it ain’t “daylights”) out of me and I refrained from cussing as long as I could. But, of course, eventually you pick up all the requisite words on the street or in the alley, as was the case with me. It wasn’t long before I acquired the proper vocabulary sufficient for hanging around the corner gas station, smoking cigarettes, kicking tires and noticing everybody’s dirty fingernails. Grease’ll do that.

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By the time I was in high school I was as good a cusser as any other boy, although it was generally understood that girls didn’t swear and didn’t even know what the words meant — especially the more intimate references rooted in body parts and procreation activities (if you catch my drift). Girls were above that. Way above.

My swearing improved dramatically when I went into the Army in my early 20s. Sergeants can work foul language into every command they bark and into every rebuke of an individual soldier beneath them who screws up. (Screws up is a handy euphemism for a stronger, more vulgar rebuke.)

Who’d have thought that in the 21st century many of these words would become common parlance among respected leaders as well as the rest of us?

Wasn’t the world better when, instead of coming right out with a bad word or phrase, mouthing something like “goodness gracious sakes alive” was good enough? Darn tootin’, I say.

Everybody knows what B.S. stands for but instead of using the initials for that vulgarity or actually mouthing the words, wouldn’t it be better to simply respond to a bald-faced lie with, “And the farmer hauled another load away?”

Then there’s S.O.B., also known to virtually everyone as a grievous insult, sometimes deserved. But still, there are substitutes that don’t involve the sacred state of motherhood. “Son of a gun” works, or even “Son of a sea cook.” I doubt if sea cooks would mind. They likely know a few bad words themselves, being seafaring men and women.

Oh nuts! I see by the gull darn word count on my computer that I’m near the end here, doggone it. How we express ourselves these days is a serious matter, for cripe’s sakes. We’ve simply gotta get busy and clean up the mother tongue, for crying out loud.

Finis. (A perfectly fine F word.)

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Related Topics: DULUTH
Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at jimheffernan.org and can be reached by email at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org.
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