Profanity and What Is Profane

NPR just published an article explaining their decision to publish the word shithole. Grownups. Had a discussion. About the pros and cons. Of saying “shithole.” In a news broadcast. “Shithole” was on the cover of a bunch of respectable papers and magazines yesterday. Because the context was so egregious, and because it came from the president of the United States. What an accomplishment. Again we are embarrassed and made a pariah to the world. The shithole presidency.

When I was a young kid in the 70’s I associated conservatives with our neighbors down the street, a nice old retired couple I knew only as the Hamiltons. I never got their first names. He was Mr. and she was Mrs. Hamilton and they let us come over and watch cartoons. They never used “curse words,” as he called them, and foul language was forbidden in their house. They flew the American flag on the appropriate days, and they voted conservative. I think he was a war veteran. She made cookies. We ate many. It was the closest thing to a “white picket fence” household I encountered in my oh-so-Berkeley youth. I really liked the Hamiltons. I was happy to mind my words and respect their house rules. Those were good cookies. These were good neighbors.

Lenny Bruce died in 1966, a year after I was born. In my teens I discovered his story and his work and he became a hero to me. His use of “profanity” got him arrested and persecuted, and precipitated a discussion on what is profane, what is freedom of speech, what is freedom of expression. He used whatever words he wanted to as part of his art. He wasn’t going to censor himself for anyone. It was brave, and dangerous, for him. He won, ultimately, at great personal cost, clearing the path for Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks and countless others who came after. But what do those words mean now?

I try to avoid them, in my own language, unless they’re really necessary to make a particular point. Using the “seven words you can’t say on television” that George Carlin spoke of, hasn’t seemed particularly rebellious or dangerous or interesting to me, in decades. There came a point when it seemed that stand-up comedians spent half their stage-time saying f- this and mother-f that. Eddie Murphy did a hilarious bit imitating Bill Cosby berating him and then Richard Pryor berating Cosby in response on this subject.. google it if you like, it’s quite funny. That was back in the 80’s. That’s how old this is. After Rage Against The Machine hit in the 90’s, I noticed bands yelling “motherfucker” constantly, and it seemed so.. frat housey by then! And tedious. Like it had gone full circle, from rebellion to conformity. Movies, cable TV, endlessly flogging the four-letter words like there’s still any cultural point to it. Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton would be appalled. I just find it boring and unimaginative.

Maybe proper language is the new edgy. Maybe the infestation of the white house by foul-mouthed bigots has rendered four-letter words obsolete. Maybe Lenny Bruce would consider them un-cool now, and speak in elegant Shakespearean verse? Maybe the Hamiltons would vote for Bernie Sanders! I don’t think they’d vote for the “curse words” guy. They’d have him wash his mouth out with soap.

Presidents are supposed to set a good example. Say smart, presidential things, and demonstrate dignity, respect, and class. 45 does the opposite. What is profane is his statement about “shithole countries.” What is profane is the attitude behind it. What is profane is racism and bigotry and small-mindedness and willful ignorance and that hair. What is profane is the GOP that allowed and still allows this.

Here are a few organizations you can engage, for effective ways to help reduce the profanity in our 2018 mid-term elections:

and of course

Here are some words which are not profane.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

-Emma Lazarus

Author: Eric Din

Eric makes songs, records, websites, and little forts for cats to play in. Founder/lifer in The UPTONES, guitarist, songwriter, guitar instructor, Eric blogs at and releases his new solo records via Peace and Love and Rock and Roll.

2 thoughts on “Profanity and What Is Profane”

  1. I am left with that feeling that I have got to find some form of standing firm to this latest appalling moment with 45. I realize that people can and will say things I never would. And in the privavcy of one’s own circle, you negotiate what works and what doesnt. I tend to opt out of many words that seem commonplace today.
    The problem is, obviously, who said it, the context it was said IN, ie immigration reform, the conswquence of that, and the damage it does to our reputation in the world. As well, what it does to those very impressionable teens I happen to love.
    Our country, while far from perfect, is born of the pursuit of the possible. The dream. The striving for excellence. Words matter. Context matters. My worry is the level of damage this president is inflicting on us as a country in pursuit of greater things.

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