Profanity and Grammar: Lessons From History

Profanity and Grammar: Lessons From History

by William B. Bradshaw

As I sat in the theater watching a movie that received seven academy award nominations, I was struck by the unusual amount of profanity — especially the use of the “f” word. My mind recalled an order issued by General George Washington to his officers during the Revolutionary War.

“The General is sorry to be informed that the foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing, heretofore little known in the army, is growing into fashion. He hopes the offices will, by example as well as by influence, endeavor to check it.”

The use of profanity has continued to “grow into fashion,” as Washington put it, and now the use of vulgar, crude, tasteless, and coarse language seems to be the norm, not only in the military, but also in everyday life.

In high school I was a four-year letterman in track and also a fairly good golfer. I was one cocky young athlete who was accustomed to using a lot of profanity. At the end of my senior year in high school I was invited by Missouri University’s track coach to visit the university. During that visit, the coach, two track stars at the university, and I spent the better part of one day playing golf at a prestigious country club. It was quite an experience!

After dinner that evening, the coach took me to his office, where he offered me a scholarship. He went on to say that it had been a difficult decision for him. He thought I had great potential as a runner and would definitely add depth to the team, but questioned whether I would fit in with the other members of the track team. And he made it clear that if I did not meld with the other members of the team, regardless of how fast a runner I was, my scholarship would be terminated and I would be dismissed from the team.

His stern and direct comments caught me off guard. It had been a great day, and I had, so to speak, been wined and dined: I had been the center of attention all day. After all, I was one of the faster half-milers around, and I was, so I thought, one great catch for any track team. Yet, I knew that something he had noticed about me during our day on the golf course was troubling him and was threatening my chance of being on the MU track team, something I had dreamed of ever since becoming a competitive runner. My mind was rapidly replaying the day’s activities: what could possibly be bothering him? I did not need to wait long to find out.

Locking eyes with me, the coach went on to explain that he did not approve of the use of profanity by members of his team. University students, including athletes, he said, should develop adequate vocabularies to express their feelings without the use of coarse language. Furthermore, he said, using profanity in public, as I did, was just in poor taste.

For the first time, I began to realize that today’s role models and public figures in our society were those who used words other than profanity in expressing themselves. Since that day, for me profanity has been a thing of the past. And, not meaning to sound arrogant, I think I do a pretty good job of communicating with others and expressing my emotions without the use of crude, vulgar language.

When I was being reared, most people were selective about when they cursed: for example, not around children or women or parents or in public where others could hear, and certainly not in movies. Although I was only a young boy, I still remember the stir the use of the word “damn” caused when it was used in the movie Gone With the Wind. This was the famous scene in which Clark Gable, playing Rhett Butler, said his parting words to Scarlet, being played by Vivian Leigh: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” It was shocking to most people because at that time profanity just wasn’t used in reputable films. My, things have changed!

The abundant use of profanity is one of the significant signs of what I call the “dumbing down of America.” The excessive, needless, and inappropriate use of profane, coarse, crude, tasteless, and obscene language is becoming the norm: more and more people just don’t seem to have at their command the needed adjectives other than profanity to let others know what they are thinking or how they are feeling.

Limited use of profanity may seem appropriate occasionally, but for the most part I think George Washington had it right: let’s “check it.” Who really wants to live in a society where crudeness, tastelessness, and vulgarity are just the accepted and practiced way of life we are faced with all the time? I know I don’t want that for my family — my wife, children, grandchildren — neither do I want that kind of environment to do business in. And it doesn’t need to be that way. There’s a simple remedy, and it could start with you.

Whenever you start to use a swear word, see if you can come up with some other word(s) that will express your thoughts and emotions just as adequately as, or even better than, profanity. At first you may have to stop and think about it, but before long you will be surprised at how your vocabulary will expand to include words that are as powerful and descriptive as profanity and are acceptable for use regardless of whom you are with or what you are doing. Additionally, parents can be a powerful force in fighting the needless use of profanity by using clean vocabulary around their children. Why not give it a try?

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