Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

NPR Interview: Sarah Palin’s Language

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.

6 Responses to “NPR Interview: Sarah Palin’s Language”

  1. Linda Says:

    True, gotta admire Palin for saying whatever comes into her mind.

    However, she is now part left-right paradigm of the “establishment”, when she endorsed the two “elites”, John McAmnesty and Rick Perry, (who only postures on illegals, while supporting their in-state tuition and anti- HB1070, not to mention his huge efforts using eminent domain for the NAU Superhighway), she lost all respect, in my book.

    She’s just another political hack, trying to get her “side” fired up…. she dumped her principles when she endorsed the two RINO’s and showed herself to be just another party hack.

    Also, she just up and quit the job she was elected to do. That tells me enough about her. I actually think she is unstable.

  2. Stargzer Says:

    I read the article, and thought it OK.
    But the comments on NPR? OY VEY!

    I think the Far Left is even loonier than the Far Right and the Far Libertarian put together.

    Here’s the response I posted to the NPR article:

    First, Secretary Albright was quoting the word that the Cuban pilots themselves used after they shot down not one, but two, unarmed civilian planes. “… With the downing of each plane, the Cuban pilots could be heard celebrating over the radio. Terms like, “cojones” were repeatedly shouted by the Cuban fighter pilots. …” ( That was the first time I heard the word “cajones,” and I suspect that’s when it really started to enter American English.

    Second, I was a bit surprised by Palin’s use of the word at first, but I think it was meant to call attention to the inattention the Administration has paid to Arizona’s problems with illegal immigrants. Arizonans deserve to be secure in their lives and posessions. This administration seems unable to insure domestic Tranquility or to provide for the common defence, but they seem to be going hell-bent-for-leather to promote Welfare in general.

    Finally, most of the posts here aren’t related to the story but rather to the posting of scurrilous attacks on Sarah Palin and Fox News by a group of flagitious dastards and poltroons, to borrow words from Dr. Beard’s site. Far Left and Far Right, both far off the mark.

  3. bnjtokyo Says:

    Ms Palin’s appall’n language and syntax is not appeal’n

  4. Carolann Says:

    O, Stargazer, did you have to bring your political beliefs into a discussion of a word used by a so-called politician? Calling attention to Palin’s language would seem to me to be a healthy thing. Dr. Beard’s discussion of her language is also within the realm of the discussion of a dicey word (for some of us), but was it really necessary to inject a comment about Arizona’s ‘right’s? I’m sorry, but where in Dr. Beard’s interview, did the discussion take on the politics of this country or Arizona’s part in it? I would like so much to be able to have a discussion without tagging it with politics. I’m simply asking for a few moments in a politics-free zone even if Palin is involved. Because she was a half-term governor of a state, does not mean we have to discuss politics every time she opens her mouth! Please? (I do not mean to offend you…)

  5. Stargzer Says:

    To Carolann,

    No offense taken!

    Remember, the bulk of my comment was the text that I posted to the article on the NPR site. To rehash my first two lines (composed with a tip o’ the hat to Dr. Seuss):

    “I read the article, and thought it OK.
    But the comments on NPR? OY VEY!”

    Nowhere in Doc’s interview did politics come in to play. However, have you read the comments to the article on the NPR web site? If any of them mentioned the actual subject of the article, vulgarity and euphemisms, it was only in passing. A few mentioned Sec. Albright’s Cuban comments, but by far the majority were as described, scurrilous attacks on Palin, FoxNews, and various FoxNews commentators and talking heads. After going through several pages of the hundreds of comments, I was so “urinated off” that I finally composed my reply, including a couple of Doc’s Good Words for good measure.

    I really was surprised when I first saw the clip in which she used the word, but it WAS in the context of Arizona’s problems with crimes caused by illegal immigrants. As I thought I implied in my comments, I believed the reason she used the word was for its shock value, postulating a possible explantion for the Administration’s seeming lack of concern with Arizona’s plight. It’s not just the use of a vulgarity or euphemism, but also why it was used in the first place.

    Having read several pages of the dreck posted in reply to the article, I could see that if I posted a reply of my own I would be addressing a nest of fornicating vipers slithering on the port side airfoil, so I decided to tweak their tails a bit. Hence my borrowing from the Preamble to the US Constitution, though I’m not sure how many of them have ever read it. I realized my comments would be in the minority there, but as our high school physics teacher, Rocco, told us 40 years ago, “As my Italian grandmother used to say, ‘You can’t fight City Hall, but you can always [defecate] on the steps.'” I’ve done that, metaphorically, many times in my life since then.

    Still, Sarah Palin doesn’t strike me as one who normally would swear like a sailor, except, perhaps, at those who kept filing frivolous lawsuits that threatened to bankrupt her and raise the legal costs for the State of Alaska, which is what lead to the early resignation you mentioned. Could you do your job if you were constantly under legal attack? Ever notice how the lawsuits stopped once she resigned?

    I, however, am a fervent follower of Mark Twain’s dictum: “When angry, count ten; when very angry, swear.” My father, God rest his soul, was in the Marines during WWII and in the Marine Reserves for 20 years after the war. He never talked in his sleep: he swore! That’s probably where I learned it.

    While we’re on the topic of swearing, in his “Autobiography,” Twain relates how, as a young printer’s apprentice, he and another apprentice typeset a tract for a preacher who insisted they minimize the use of paper, so they crammed all the type in from edge to edge with no extra space. When they were done, they realized they left out the words “Jesus Christ” on one of the early pages and didn’t have room to insert them without resetting all of the remaining pages (they didn’t have Microsoft Word back in those days). They had just enough room to insert the abbreviation “J.C.,” as was done in European printing, on that page without resetting the rest. The preacher was understandably upset, and thundered with words to the effect that “Thou shalt not abbreviate the Lord’s Name but use his full Name.” They were forced to reset all the type for the remaining pages. Twain goes on to say that “there is a form of swearing in which the Lord’s name is elongated” (which form was old when he was young), so when the preacher received his tract, the abbreviation “J.C.” was replaced by the phrase “Jesus H. Christ.” They were soundly thrashed by the printer.


  6. Seamus Says:

    I think the thing to note about Palin’s use of the word “cojones” is that it’s a word in a foreign language. People seem to think that if you say a foreign word, it loses the force that it had in that language. Thus, Palin thinks it’s OK to say cojones, but not balls. Lots of (non-Yiddish-speaking) people think it’s OK to call someone a schmuck or a putz who wouldn’t think of using the actual English translations.

    The fact that the words being used are foreign serves to distance them, in the mind of the speakers, from the force they have in their native tongue. What the speakers don’t seem to realize is that people who understand those languages are often in their audiences, and to those listeners the words come across with their full vulgar force. (I once had to advise an Anglo friend *not* to use the word “cojones” around a family of Cuban refugees we both knew.)

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