Remember when Robert Novak (surprise, surprise) became upset with something James Carville said, blurted out the word “bullshit,” and stormed off the set?
Well, I’m no friend of Novak’s, but I was amused at what reporters were saying he said on that occasion. Few dared to use the actual word, “bullshit.” My, how inappropriate for our sensitive readers. One writer got it pretty close. He said Novak used a barnyard term. Not bad.
But others said he cursed. Swore. Used obscenities. Even used profanities. I don’t know whether anyone wrote that he used vulgarities.
Now as a person who has taught general-semantics for a couple of decades, I know perfectly well that words can mean whatever you want them to mean. Nevertheless, normally we do expect people to use words in their generally accepted meanings.
For eight editions of News Reporting and Writing by the Missouri Group (I’m a co-author), I’ve struggled to make some distinctions in the following words in a chapter on using quotations and attributions:
* When people curse, doesn’t that mean that they want someone to go to hell, usually by damning them? I admit, most of the time people just “damn it,” whatever “it” is.
* Swearing involves taking an oath or calling upon the deity or at least someone regarded as sacred to witness to the truth of what we’re saying. We’re expected to swear in court though I’m not sure why, other than if we lie in court, we can be convicted for perjury.
* An obscenity is a word or a phrase that usually refers to sexual parts or functions in an offensive way. Most people can’t imagine, for example, using the “f” word in an inoffensive way.
* A large number of people are always offended by profanity. There’s a commandment about that – taking the name of the lord in vain. Using a word or phrase referring to the deity or to beings regarded as divine, even if only done carelessly and thoughtlessly, is regarded as sacrilegious.
* And then there are vulgarities. I like to call them “bathroom” words. We’re talking about excretory words or phrases used in a less-than-polite way.
Does all of this make sense? There are some words that I don’t know how to classify. “Hell” is one of them. I once asked a person, “What the hell does that mean?” And she said, “Well, you don’t have to start cursing.”
So often we use words in all of the classifications above because we can’t think of anything else to say. So often they demonstrate our real dearth of vocabulary. You know, it’s cold as hell; it’s hot as hell. What the hell do those statements mean?
But who can deny that sometimes a good “damn” just feels right. And so does a good “bullshit.”
So, all you writer and readers, get off Novak’s case. You’ve all said much worse in similar circumstances. And if you want to attack Novak, there are much better reasons.