Got a book in the mail a couple of weeks back -- a promo from one of the big publishing houses. It was a large and gorgeous trade paperback about men's fashion -- boy, talk about casting your pearls before swine.
The name of the book is ... well, I can't tell you.
Right there in big, confrontational letters, the first word in the book's title was THAT word, once upon a time the nuclear option of all vulgarities, the word so taboo I cannot even tell you what it rhymes with in a family newspaper.
A few days later, I saw this same book sitting brazenly on a retail shelf, its title boldly apparent to anyone with functioning eyeballs. A time traveler from, say, the 1980s would look right past everyone talking on cell phones to point at that book: "They can just put that out there like that?"
Last week, I found myself in a WalMart in the South -- don't ask -- and there, walking the aisles, was a disgruntled looking gentleman wearing a large black T-shirt on which was emblazoned, and I quote, "Dog You, You Doggin' Dog," except the word "dog" wasn't anywhere on that shirt, if you get my meaning.
Was the man pounced on by security? Shrieked at by outraged mothers? Jailed? Tasered? None of the above. As far as I could tell, he bought his obscenely cheap Chinese-made junk and went back to his sad, resentful life without incidence.
We are living in interesting times on the profanity front. The "f-bomb" is clearly becoming a mainstream phenomenon. For those who still cringe at the sound of the word, it's been a slow and ugly process of cultural corrosion. But there are specific events that represent a giant leap forward (backward?) in the gradual liberation of our culture's dirtiest word from the pool hall and locker room where it once exclusively dwelled.
One of the major walls to crumble took place back in April, shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing. With the whole country watching, Red Sox star David "Big Papi" Ortiz took the microphone at Fenway Park and, in evoking Boston pride, dropped a huge f-bomb on live television to millions.
And then, something even more amazing happened. FCC chairman Julius Genachowski -- the one person more than anyone else who is supposed to police bad language in public settings -- sent out a tweet supportive of Ortiz and his use of the word. Yes, there was a cascade of complaints about Papi's language, but this bears repeating: The FCC heard the f-word broadcast on live TV and said, basically, "No problem here."
This kind of liberalization, however, exists with another related phenomenon going on in the opposite direction. While expletives having to do with body parts, sex acts or excretory functions are gradually shedding their stigma, expletives that are considered slurs to groups or categories of people are being pushed deeper into taboo.
Careers can now be ruined by the use of these words, particularly the infamous N-word, even in private. Just ask that glassy-eyed Southern TV chef whose name I've willfully forgotten. If Ortiz had used one of these words in his Fenway speech -- though what racist or ethnic slur a Dominican black man might use against two Chechen white guys kind of boggles the imagination -- he would be more villain than hero right now.
And that's all for the good, isn't it?
I'm old enough to remember when the "barnyard epithets" -- let's call these Category A of profanity -- were much more radioactive than racist language -- Category B -- and I always found that puzzling. As for the former, personally, I'm pretty good at holding my tongue in most social situations, but there are contexts where my language might get a tad salty. At certain times, usually involving the operation of motor vehicles, I've been known to go full-on Louis C.K.
But racist/sexist/religious slurs are of a different magnitude, and I do not at all find it morally inconsistent to be laissez faire about the occasional Category-A swear word yet stalwart against Category B. It sounds a lot like liberal hypocrisy to argue that words are just words and sometimes it just feels good to vent with a few coarse curses when it comes to one kind of profanity, and then argue the opposite about another kind. But, really slurs having to do with race, gender, sexual orientation or religion are weapons and not very precise ones.
Sure, you can call someone that increasingly popular two-syllable synonym for "jerk," but that's a surgical strike aimed at one person in one context. A Category B slur, on the other hand, is a dirty bomb, a discriminatory term that is indiscriminate in its ability to hurt innocent people.
Is the mainstreaming of the world's ultimate bad word -- or its various euphemistic spin-offs like "flippin'" and "freakin'" -- something worth celebrating? I would vote no. In spoken language, it often serves a useful purpose, but when it is applied to the names of rock bands or books about menswear, it's too often nothing more than a crass attention-getting device.
You can be offended, disgusted, maybe even shocked by that word in certain contexts. But I would contend you can never be actually hurt by it. And after decades of choosing coarseness over hatred for our strongest censure, the culture is finally figuring it out that it should have been the other way around all along.
What would David Ortiz say about such a thing? That's easy: It's about bleepin' time.
Contact Wallace Baine at firstname.lastname@example.org.