In Defense of Vulgarity

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I’m re-posting this as part of my screed on The Handmaid’s Tale, since I think it’s relevant and because it’s one of my all-time favorites…

In my review today of Wag the Dog, I quoted some sections of the film that happened to employ the F word, which I deemed necessary since they were the most revealing conversations in the film. Lew was classy enough to dash them out. Given the bourgeois sensibilities of our readers (sensibilities that I share) they probably could do without reading the word at 8 AM with their coffee.

Nevertheless, I received a rather ridiculous email from some humorless Fundamentalist (or do I repeat myself?) Telling me that God hates cussing, etc., etc. Well, I’ll ignore this person’s rather embarassing missing of the the fact that I wasn’t using the word myself, but merely quoting a source, and come out all the more in favor of judicious use of vulgarity.

Of course, when I’m talking about vulgarity, I’m not talking about profanity – taking the Lord’s name (or other Holy things) in vain, something I do not endorse. I’m talking about the mentioning of vulgar things – “vulgar,” stemming from the Latin vulgaris “of or pertaining to the common people, common, vulgar,” or perhabs we’re talking about something that is “obscene, ” that is “offensive to the senses, or to taste and refinement,”

Obviously, what is obscene is a matter of opinion, something easily proven by the fact that while one Pope was having Michelangelo paint pictures of male genitals on the walls of the Sistine Chapel, a later Pope was having the paintings ruined with painted-on loin cloths.

So what’s so bad about obscene and vulgar language? Some people may find some things of bad taste, and others may not. In the case of Wag the Dog, the characters I’m quoting are foul-mouthed, but they’re hardly held up as virtuous folk. In fact they’re liars and braggarts, hardly models of virtue, so it only seems fitting that they would punctuate their language with the F word.

But should be regular people use such words? Let’s take my two favorites, sh-t and f—k. The “SH Word” as we used to call it, is simply an Old English word for excrement, and the F word is a Middle English word for copulation. Not fornication, mind you –implying something sinful – just copulation, something that married people can do all day long without annoying anyone in heaven. I’m not theologian, but I don’t recall anything in Genesis about sex and poop being invented only after the Fall of Man. We’re talking about ordinary words that describe ordinary things. There’s nothing magical or diabilical about them, for goodness sake.

This might seem like splitting hairs, but I honestly don’t see the awfulness of it all. There’s a time and a place for most everything, and cussing certainly serves helpful purposes in literature and in communicating more accurately one’s feelings and observations. One example comes to mind – according to translator John Ciardi, the poet Dante certainly found reason to use vulgarity (the Italian vernacular equivalent) when expressing his contempt for Mohammad in the Inferno:

“Between his legs all of his red guts hung with the
heart, the lungs, the liver, the gall bladder, and the
shriveled sac that passes sh-t to the bung.” (Ciardi, pg.

Should we be afraid of excrement and copulation? Should mention of it with colorful metaphors be banished from human society? That seems a little infantile to me, if not positively counter productive. Dante knew what Thomas More knew – there’s nothing for the Christian to fear about any filthy or “unpleasant” thing. If anything, let them be mentioned with mocking relish (at the appropriate times) all the more that we might show our power over them, not the other way around. I’m told that cussing for comedic effect is devilish behavior. Nonsense. It’s exactly the opposite: “The devil, that prowde spirite, cannot endure to be mocked.” – St. Thomas More

Or for you Protestants – “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

If you really want to make him mad, throw in a good F word. Try it, it’s fun.

1:35 am on October 14, 2007