So what do we do about swearing? My ten-year-old son John came to me for some counsel. He was troubled that some of his friends had taken umbrage at his use of the word “flip.” They had suggested that it was a place-holder (a “lieutenant,” if you are of a literal bent in your conception of the French language–which is, I believe, the safest bent. ((I have been guilty, here in this column, of occasionally seeming to disparage the speakers of said language. For this, I am genuinely sorry (((maybe not exactly “genuinely,” but at least possessed of a high-quality “faux” version of sorry ((((“faux,” as everybody knauxs, is French)))).
Perhaps to redeem myself in some measure from this error, I will now make fun of another nationality, the English, who say “leftenant.” Why the heck do they do that? They also have this word “loo,” which they use to mean, actually, “bathroom.” So why don’t English people say, “Excuse me, I need to go to the lef”? ((((At a rehearsal of a Christmas choir that I conduct annually, we encountered a place in the music where the choir was to hum for a bit while the sopranos sang the words. We decided that for part of the passage, we would go “ah-h-h,” and then change to singing “Loo-o-o.” I specified that at measure fifty-six we would all go to the “loo” and Aimy and Meg, the lovely siblings from England who sit in the first row, just cracked up. Oops. (((((If we, as a church, were ever to cave in to “gender correctness,” would we be calling each other “Sibling Robersak” ((((((assuming, of course, that our last name were “Robersak”)))))), like in “Sibling Robersak will now favor us with an hymn”? ((((((I’m blaming these parentheses on onions. I’m on a diet that invites the abundant consumption of onions. Onions are the most parenthetical of Heavenly Father’s creations.)))))) ))))) )))) ))) )) ) for the queen mother of all swear words.
John had been associating this innocent expletive with what he had seen in movies of missionary life, and was confused. (Although the last missionary movie we watched together was “Errand of Angels” and I don’t think there were any “flips” in it at all—but of course it was girl missionaries.)
I comforted him with the following anecdote: My good friend Terry Brown, a former stake president and current mandolin player, told the story of a dilemma faced by another stake president, whose little girl got up in fast and testimony meeting to celebrate the fact that “in our family, nobody has said the ‘f’ word for two weeks!” She was thrilled to report this purity-in-speech progress, and sat down. It was suddenly quite still in the chapel. Her father arose with a labored dignity and had to reveal to the assembled saints, “In our family, the ‘”f’ word’ is…” and here he went right ahead and uttered the simple four-letter word that rhymes with “art” but doesn’t really require any. It was suddenly no longer still in the chapel, which is fine, because the former stillness had nothing whatsoever to do with reverence.
I can understand this. In some homes, the “d” word is “dummy,” the “h” word is “hate,” and the “s” word is “shutup.” (This “s” word is so offensive that I suddenly don’t feel so good about writing it in Meridian Magazine. Eew.) Using entirely innocuous words we can, of course, curse people to worse hells than if we had just bitten the bullet and told them to go there. (I think that’s what this column is about. Try to remember that, if I don’t come back to it.)
I think you should not swear unless your character in the script swears. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for actors who won’t swear even if their characters do. My dear sister-in-law (sibling-in-law) Daina was once in a production, the name of which escapes me, in which she had to declare “Dam, dam, dam, dam, dam!” in a show that wasn’t about beavers.
(I just asked Daina’s younger sist-, um, sibling Tia, who is sitting on the other end of this couch, which show has that line. She said “‘My Fair Lady,’ but it’s Henry Higgins who says it.” I told her the story of Daina, who instead of swearing said “Fiddle, fiddle, fiddle, fiddle, fiddle!” Tia guessed “Fiddler On the Roof.” We might have called Daina in Kansas, but then she wouldn’t be surprised and delighted when her story shows up on the computer screens of a humongous segment of sentient beings in the galaxy. It’s better that we don’t know the name of the show.) Instead, she said “Fiddle, fiddle fiddle fiddle fiddle!” (This is not a negligent redundancy—the other “Fiddle, fiddle…” was inside the parentheses, and if removed, which is allowed ((my editors would say “encouraged”)) with parenthetical material, would render this paragraph meaningless. I know what I’m doing—I’m a Meridian Columnist ((I was going to write “professional writer,” but Meridian doesn’t pay. Yet.)) ) I respected Daina for her stand.
But an evil impulse arose in my heart. There shortly came a time when I was to direct her in a production of the pioneer musical The Trail of Dreams. It’s a script Steve Perry, James Arrington, and I based on the actual words of Mormon pioneers as found in their journals. Daina was cast in a particular scene as Jane Richards, an apostle’s wife, who quoted a cruel farm woman in Iowa who, when asked for a potato for Sist-, Sibling Richards’ ailing child, said, “I wouldn’t give or sell a thing to one of you damn Mormons!” It was a strong moment, and Daina played it well. The evil impulse I had thus satisfied was to be the guy to rob her of her Thespian verbal virtue. I will, of course, receive many stripes in purgatory for this. More, certainly, than the apostle’s wife. Fewer, probably, than the Iowan. I think Daina will emerge stripeless.
[Addendum: My wife, Daina’s elder Sibster, who reads (censors) these columns before they fly, has told me that it was in “Blythe Spirit,” and that Daina merely substituted a single earnest “Fiddlesticks,” which many of you will recognize as a euphemism for… Oh, never mind.]
I don’t often quote (intentionally) from previous columns, but in the interest of bolstering all y’all’s morals, here’s a chunk from a passage that lists the hazards of being a cowboy, which is what I played in “110 In the Shade” last summer.
“(Hazard #4) Swearing at home. Not long into the run, I picked up off of the kitchen counter (at home) some perfectly inconsequential item, some resoundingly inoffensive small object, and said ‘What th’ helzis?’ The ease with which I had spoken startled me. (In the parking lot after the show one night, I found myself apologizing to the General Relief Society President about all the swearing. She seemed to be okay with it once I insisted that it was J. Golden Kimball who taught me how to do it well.)”
J. Golden Kimball didn’t tutor me personally in profanity. I played Elder Kimball in a one-man-show created by James Arrington (whom, now I come to think of it, I don’t recall ever having heard cuss).
Elder Kimball was once on a tour of outlying stakes with Elder Rudger Clawson. One morning he awoke to find his companion’s bed empty. He found Elder Clawson on the platform of the local train depot. Elder Clawson complained vehemently that he’d had it with Elder Kimball’s swearing in his addresses to the saints—he was quitting and going back to Salt Lake. Elder Kimball, moved with more compassion than contrition, said, “Now Rudger, y’ gotta understand. If I didn’t throw a few hells and damns into my talks, why, they wouldn’t listen to me any better’n they listen to you.” J. Golden reports that Elder Clawson actually laughed a little, and stayed with the tour.
Profanity in pursuit of the Latter-day work. Hmm. I think that this would be as good a time as any to change the subject.
A while back, when I was still watching more TV than just two series, one being the semi-annual exhortations from The Brethren to be gentle and kind and non-competitive and the other being the weekly spectacle of BYU football players ripping the shoulder pads and self-esteem off countless innocent young men from lesser universities, I was watching Public Television (capitalized out of the reverence It continually demands—even to the point of sacrifices). As a program was about to begin, a little cautionary screen appeared, warning that “The following program contains adult language.” Nuh-uh. I was confident that there would be virtually no discussion at all about tax brackets, hair loss, foreign policy, or red pickup trucks with magnesium wheels. These are subjects that require the use of “adult language.” What PBS meant to warn us against was junior-high language. (Not the damns and hells of Sibling Kimball, but much worse.) The screen should have said “Warning: the following program contains junior-high language.” This would have achieved the intended result, a show that junior-high kids would watch with delight, and mature people who have survived
- The need to replace substance with shock value, and
- The arid years of unacquired vocabulary
would reject as offensive, repulsive, boring, and return to the BYU game.
I sent PBS my observations in a letter, but didn’t hear anything back. And, as you’ve noticed, nothing has changed. But it’s my fault. Really. In my letter, I had used the words “demographic,” “propriety,” and “mandate.” I can’t blame them for not responding. I’d used adult language without warning them.