Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for August, 2010

NPR Interview: Sarah Palin’s Language

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

Here is the complete (edited) transcript of my interview with Linton Weeks, national correspondent of NPR news, cited in his article, “It No Longer Takes @#$%& To Use ‘Foul’ Language”, that you may now read by clicking here.

(Weeks) I am thinking about trying to write something this morning about Sarah Palin’s use of the word “cojones” yesterday when talking about President Obama and the immigration issue. On Fox News she said that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer “has the cojones that our president does not have to look out for all Americans, not just Arizonans, but all Americans, in this desire of ours to secure our borders and allow legal immigration to help build this country, as was the purpose of immigration laws.”

(Weeks) That coarse language spoken by coarse people has entered popular American parlance is an old story. But coarse language spoken by proper, line-toeing people may be a new thing. Sarah Palin may be known for many attributes, but a foul mouth is not one of them.

Dr. Beard hiding under his new hat.(Beard) Clearly, in using this word she is appealing to the literate rednecks in the ultra-rightwing base. She is using an off-color euphemism for a vulgar word that would not be readily accessible to Tea Partiers, but you are right in suggesting this word may be spreading in the general population. On the other hand, she may be extending a tentacle to the Spanish-speaking population, which would be rather apropos for the subject she was speaking on.

(Weeks) Are we living in a new era when the idea of coarse language no longer exists?

(Beard) The 60s changed the attitude of many middle-of-the-roaders when the left-wing of political thinking in this country began insisting that unless freedom of speech is absolute, it is of no value. Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, the YIP and even, to some degree, the leadership of the SDS of the time made a point of using profanity as a test of the First Amendment. This loosened constraints in some registers of speech and some places (HBO, movies in general, porn sites on the Web, etc.) and that loosening is growing every day. While profanity is becoming acceptable in the speech of others, most English speakers still avoid it and I hear it mostly from people or characters who have rejected mainstream society. In principle, this represents no change except that today that body of people is much larger and forms its own society.

(Weeks) When a formerly taboo word is used by respectable people, is that when it enters the general lexicon?

(Beard) Using the formula “mainstream society” = “respectable people”, yes, that is true. That is the purpose of euphemisms like ‘cojones’, ‘screw’, ‘dump’, ‘pee’, ‘poop’. We even have a children’s book now called “Everybody Poops”, for which the film rights have been acquired. How mainstream can a word get?

(Weeks) Can you think of a few formerly edgy words that are now firmly in the mainstream?

(Beard) Actually, yes. When I was growing up ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ were as taboo are their off-color synonyms. One way to get around taboohood is to use a scientific term; science is good, right? We see this pushing of the envelope in TV ads, too: ads for “erectile dysfunction”, tampons, mini- and maxipads, medicines for vaginal conditions—even condoms for a while, were all prohibited when I was growing up in North Carolina. All of these ads imply things expressed by profanity in the general language yet, while the words are taboo, the subject matter is watched by “respectiable people”.

(Beard) I know respectable people (including my grandchildren) who use the medical terms as well as the “kiddy terms” (poop, tinkle). So we are inundated by the concepts in very respectable radio, newspaper, and TV ads, the words themselves occur in very respectable motion pictures about people on the other side of the respectability divide and, in fact, are used by our friends and acquaintances who occasionally step just just over that divide, today a rather wide gray area.

(Weeks) Does it help that Palin said that Brewer, a woman, has cojones? Does that lift the word out from the literal realm and place it in the metaphorical?

(Beard) Not usually. When we use the F-word metaphorically, it has the same effect as when we use it literally. People who would not talk about f…ing in the literal sense, also avoid that word in the metaphorical sense, e.g. Woody Allen’s famous line in (I think) “Everything you Always Wanted to Know about Sex.” In that film he claimed to be doing the same thing to a girl that the president was doing to the country, avoiding the F-word equally in either sense. Given all the other sources (mentioned above) for these words, I would expect Palin’s use of them to whiz past most ears unnoticed. Here is the reasoning:

  • If the concepts are not taboo (TV ads, medical terms, kiddie terms),
  • And the words themselves occur all around us, and in any realistic movie or TV show about those beyond the respectability divide,
  • What could be wrong with the taboo words themselves, let alone the euphemisms like ‘cojones’?

(Beard) We are living in an era of tremendous upheaval, change on a scale and at a speed never experienced before. Everyone can now publish his or her ideas as fast as they can type them out and click “publish”. What is amazing to me is that there is anyone left who considers profanity profane at all.

(Beard) Here is why I think the attitudes of folks like you and me persist. Words, as we all know, are associations of (linguistic) sound with meanings. However, the concepts (meanings) of vulgar words are not taboo, as the TV ads and medical terms I mention above point out. It is the sounds of these words alone that is profane or off-color. That is why they are taboo in either their literal or figurative senses.

(Beard) It is the sound itself of these words that connect them directly to our sense of shame, our moral sense, our sense of right and wrong. So all we have to do is substitute a different sound (cojones, screw, crap) and, in most cases, we distance ourselves enough from our sense of shame to get by. Those who use the originals have to lose or ignore that sense of shame—assuming they were raised to have one.

(Weeks) Thank you so much.