Discreet profanity charms the bourgeoisie. And they still buy books.
Knowing this, Michael Adams has written In Praise of Profanity as an amusing look at language usage that violates norms set down and followed by those who control power and the rest of us in our English-speaking cultures.
The tone and level of inquiry match those of a dinner party in a comfortable residential neighbourhood near a university campus where guests are keen to talk about the latest hit television series. Adams begins by discussing an episode of an ABC sitcom in which a two-year-old drops an F-bomb, except that viewers never really hear her say it. Such discreetly edited programming in what Adams nonetheless calls the age of profanity pushes the envelope of acceptable social behaviour titillatingly slightly while never threatening the social order.
The coda to Adams’ three breezy, and one admirably more serious, chapters in fact is an account of dinner-table discussion of the word “clusterfuck” at a conference on English historical lexis and lexicography at the University of Oxford last year. He calls this afterword “Ultimate Profanity”. It reads like a personal email describing to absent colleagues what high wit they missed over drinks.
Throughout, Adams is sensitive to how codes of language use relate to power and class. In his breezy chapters, he analyses the power strategies behind intentional public usage of profanity: US vice-president Dick Cheney telling senator Patrick Leahy on the floor of the US Senate “Go fuck yourself!” and an Alaskan television newscaster resigning on the air with “Fuck it, I quit.”
Scholars with an active sense of wonder about humankind have changed their ways of thinking over time. Alan Walker Read collected graffiti – obscene, humorous, poetical, aggressive – on toilet walls across the western US and Canada in 1928. What Read took then as symptoms of neurosis Adams with insightful empathy now sees as desperate acts of communication in search of solidarity, even intimacy.
This interpretive sympathy, once awakened, runs through the final chapter devoted to what Adams calls the literary value of profanity. Using Seneca’s On Anger as a guide, Adams explains the moral point, the tragedy, the destructive violence and feelings of social decline transmitted by the 7,037 instances of profanity scattered over 85 episodes of the HBO series The Sopranos. In criticising the negative reactions of Julia Neuberger to the obscenity-laced language of Sammy, the main character in James Kelman’s Booker Prize-winning How Late It Was, How Late, Adams channels George Orwell’s acute sensitivity to the class implications involved. It made me wish that Adams had invited down-and-outers, the racially, ethnically and sexually marginalised and the underclass that now enact violence for us in our armed forces to his dinner party sooner.
As embedded reporter Gordon Dillow remarked about the language of young US Marines early in Operation Iraqi Freedom: “Every fucking word was fucking this or fucking that…In a way it gets poetical – the way they can string these ‘fucks’ together…But you can’t put that in a family newspaper.”
But Adams could have put it and them in his fucking book.
Tom Palaima is professor of Classics, University of Texas at Austin, US.
In Praise of Profanity
By Michael Adams
Oxford University Press, 272pp, £11.99
Published 29 September 2016