Cuss & Effect
Can people speak anymore without the f-word?


One night at the opera with my father, I noticed that the respectable-looking, rather dowdy middle-aged couple sitting next to me began to almost vibrate with excitement when the curtain rose. Evidently the set struck them as rather spectacular.

”Oh, this is gonna be so f***ing great!” exclaimed the wife to her husband, who nodded benignly in agreement. While I was happy for them and their enthusiasm, I couldn’t help but wonder: Since when did the f-word become so acceptable in what used to be called polite society that we now can even hear it at the opera?

I’d like to be able to say at this point I was worried about the sensibilities of my 75-year-old dad, a genteel relic whose elderly ears really shouldn’t have to hear such vulgarity. But the truth is he’s part of the problem. One of the regular bones of contention I have with him is he doesn’t always bother to watch his language around women and children, especially when frustrated by heavy traffic.

A few years ago, for instance, I noticed that my daughter, then about 12, had become bizarrely obsessed with counting the number of wheels on big trucks when we were out driving.

“Oh, because whenever we’re stuck behind one, Grampa always says, ‘F***ing 18-wheelers,’” she explained, when I asked about her new counting craze. “So I want to check if trucks that size always have 18 wheels.”

Then there was the afternoon in the local dog park, when I happened to witness a woman politely suggest to another woman–whose large and aggressive male German shepherd was bothering all the other dogs–that she might consider either neutering the animal or keeping it on a leash. She got called the b-word for her trouble, making me regret, as I often do these days, the disappearance of the useful old expression “Well, I never!”

And again I wondered why almost every public altercation with strangers (at least if you’re female) now regularly includes the b-word, which I suppose is at least better than the c-word, recently flung my way by a couple of old ladies in the venerable Los Angeles Farmers Market. (They were angry that I wouldn’t let them appropriate a chair, which I needed, from my table.) And so it goes, which is why I can’t get too worked up about the supposedly terrifying FCC “clampdown,” as it’s always called. If one side effect is that public discourse fades to a slightly paler shade of blue–although so far I don’t see any sign of this–that would be fine by me, and I don’t think I’m generally considered a prude.

But actually, not all (nor even, from my observation, most) of the so-called suppression of speech these days comes from the mean old Republicans at the FCC. Take the fracas involving public-radio commentator Sandra Tsing Loh, a friend of mine who was fired by Santa Monica’s KCRW a year ago this month for accidentally saying the f-word on-air. (An engineer forgot to bleep it out as planned.)

You can’t say the f-word on the radio, nor do I think you should be able to (nor does Sandra), but the FCC doesn’t go after minor mistakes like that and there was no evidence that in this case they’d even noticed. Nevertheless, station manager Ruth Seymour–a card-carrying liberal if there ever was one–immediately gave Sandra (who’s now at KCRW’s cross-town public-radio rival KPCC) the axe.

In any case, the watchful eye of television-network censors now seems focused at least as much on issues of p.c. sensitivity as on the real dangers of FCC fines brought on by actual indecency. Earlier this month I organized a panel of TV writers for the American Cinema Foundation and the Los Angeles Press Club, and a continuing refrain was where, exactly, they’re not supposed to push the envelope now.

NR’s Rob Long said he was once prevented from having a character say the word “vagina,” not a word the FCC would normally care about. Boston Legal’s Scott Kaufer said that a boilerplate warning from ABC’s Standards and Practices is to refrain from showing characters smoking, even though “we end pretty much every episode with James Spader and William Shatner smoking on the balcony… Never once this season have I paid any attention to that note or heard any follow-up.”

“I can’t get away with it,” responded Angel’s Tim Minear, whose new show The Inside is a Silence of the Lambs-style gorefest that will premiere on Fox later this year. “Children are gutted on my show from stem to stern, but I couldn’t have a serial killer say the word ‘retard’ because that would have been insensitive.”

And yet even as pop-culture purveyors seem increasingly inclined to treat adult audiences like easily influenced sixth-graders, there’s a parallel disinclination to prevent actual children from behaving like foulmouthed banshees. Rachel Simmons’ 2002 bestseller Odd Girl Out marshaled page after page of depressing tales of female adolescent cruelty–typical is the story of poor Jenny, who moved to a new school and immediately got nicknamed, for no discernible reason, Harriet the Hairy Whore–but never suggested that the perpetrators were simply badly brought up brats ill-suited for polite society.

Instead, Simmons argued, “girls in our society are not encouraged to express their anger, and so it goes underground”–oozing up in toxic little bubbles of middle-school sniping and ostracism. I’d say the real problem is that girls (and boys) are encouraged all too extravagantly in our society to express anger from an early age. Anyone who’s seen a preschooler smack his mother or scream in a restaurant or push another child down at the playground–only to be earnestly asked by the concerned parent about what feelings led to such behavior–knows this is true.

But back to “retard.” I find current delicacy about that word linguistically fascinating, because it indicates that the word itself is in flux. “Mentally retarded,” the blandly correct description when I was growing up, has become over the past decade or so no longer quite polite. But it’s also not yet quite obsolete–like “cretin” and “idiot” and “moron,” which were all once medical terms for people with abnormally low IQs but now are no longer, and so are O.K. as generic insults.

Because “retard” is exiting polite usage (“handicapped” or “disabled” are now preferred), I don’t think most people who throw it around mean to be cruel, any more than they would by calling someone a moron. I suspect instead they’re half making fun of themselves for wallowing in adolescent name-calling. Certainly it seems to me that unsympathetic characters like serial killers ought to be able to use it. If serial killing doesn’t establish their villainy, “retard” sure will.

Anyway, last week I noticed a great anecdote about all this over at Reason’s Hit & Run blog. A commenter wrote about a friend of his in Montana called Ray, who was pulled over by a policeman one day for having an insensitive vanity plate that read RAYTARD: “Ray offered to replace it with one that said DISRAYBLED. The officer was not amused. True story.”

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.