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When is profanity profane?

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I was over at some friends' house for dinner the other night. They have two kids, ages 6 and 4, and I've always tried to watch what I say around them. But this time I apparently blew it, because after I got back home, I got a call from their mother. She was apologetic (and knows I'm writing you), but she said she had to ask me to please refrain from using swear words around the kids. "What did I say?" I asked, because I didn't remember slipping up. "You said 'hell' once and 'damn' twice," she said, "but who's counting?" I appreciated the joke, and I apologized for misspeaking, but between you and me, I don't consider what I said cusswords. I thought they were just epithets or something. Could you please clarify this?

Dirty Rotten Bastard

Dirty Rotten Bastard: Oh, shit, I was afraid somebody would ask me this question. Not having any kids of my own, I have no idea what's appropriate or inappropriate to say around them. As a joke once, I used the F-word to describe how effing cute my sister's newborn child was, and she still hasn't forgiven me for that one. So, that's where I'm coming from. I love to cuss, do it all the time and consider myself pretty damn good at it. Actually, as a friend recently pointed out, I suck at it, because I tend to use the same two or three words over and over again, causing them to lose all their power. If I were being honest with myself, I'd admit that I need to move on from the F-word. It has served nobly, but it is tired and needs a you-know-what-ing rest.

My dear mother, who cussed like a drunken sailor unless Reverend Lirely was around, drew the line at "f**k," which I never understood, but then I realized one day: It's not the word so much, it's the need to draw a line. We like to rope off certain words, save them for special occasions, so they'll have more power. That's what cusswords are all about. But even those of us who love to cuss have certain words we place beyond the pale. I never, ever use the N-word or the C-word. Just saying them out loud gives me the willies, like God's going to strike me down or something. This fear would be a lot more credible if I actually believed in God, but that's not the point. The point is that certain words develop a certain force. To utter them is to come awfully close to delivering a physical blow.

Unfortunately (or is it fortunate?), those words keep changing. There was a time when people felt compelled to say "gentleman cow" instead of "bull." Today, that just seems like total bullshit. Likewise, there was a time when the worst thing you could do, linguistically speaking, was take the Lord's name in vain. All sorts of euphemisms were cooked up to avoid doing so: "Jiminy Crickets" for "Jesus Christ," "doggone" for "goddam," "gosh" or "golly" for "God." Today, blasphemy is on the wane, which must concern religious leaders a little bit. If "Jesus Christ" has lost its ability to offend, maybe Jesus Christ has lost his ability to inspire. Is it still a sin to take the Lord's name in vain? Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

Like it or not, we've moved on. Today, we prefer cusswords that have to do with sex or excretion. (I'll leave it to everybody to provide their own examples.) And next to them, "hell" and "damn" just don't sound all that bad. But if your friends want you to use "heck" and "darn" around their kids, that's their prerogative. Personally, I find euphemisms amusing, since they're doing exactly what the old words were doing, if not more so - "fudge" for "shit," for example, which adds a taste dimension I don't really find appetizing. No, I think I'll stick with the F-word until something better comes along. Wait, I've got it: Blagojevich, as in "You son of a Blagojevich."

Do you solemnly swear? Write to: Mr. Right, Isthmus, 101 King St., Madison, WI 53703. Or call 251-1206, ext. 152. Or email

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