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Public profanity: snuffing out verbal pollution

It's happened to us all. Waiting for a bus, queueing up for tickets at a movie, walking through a crowded shopping center, we're suddenly assaulted -- not physically, but verbally. The assailant: a streak of profanity, a smear of four-letter obscenities. Most of the time such language is not even directed at us. We're simply overhearing it -- as we often can't avoid overhearing conversations in crowds. It's not particularly malicious: It doesn't usually seem to be an orchestrated attempt by the smutty to scandalize the bourgeoisie. It seems, instead, to be increasingly a part of daily dialogue.

And increasingly it seems that there are few havens. We can stand in a ski-lift line surrounded by the purity of a majestic wilderness, sit quietly with the family waiting for a table in a restaurant, or settle into a seat at a concert. Suddenly the background is punctuated by language so jarring as to make us squirm -- and, now and then, look around to spot its source. What do we find? That sometimes the most wrenching vulgarities belch forth from those who in other ways seem most conscious of decorum -- stylishly dressed, nicely groomed, and otherwise well-spoken.

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What's going on?

I don't wish to sound schoolmarmish. Language is a living and flexible thing, constantly absorbing into its mainstream all sorts of words that once were at its fringe. But neither do I want to duck the issue. One of the effects of obscenity, after all, is to intimidate the listener into just that sort of ducking.

That's not surprising, given that the habit of ``swearing'' is rooted in the religious belief, common to many cultures, that language can be used to call down a curse upon one's enemies. In fact, most of today's expletives are not of that sort. Very little contemporary profanity (if my ears serve me right) is ``profane'' in the strictest sense. It's not the language of blasphemy but of bodily functions that's most in vogue today.

Which is one of the reasons that it's hard for some hearers to articulate their objections to it. After all, we need to be able to talk about the physiology of reproduction and elimination. So why are these words perfectly acceptable, while those words are not? Aren't we being too prudish even to register an objection? Shouldn't we just turn aside, assume (as our entertainment media want us to) that every modern person talks this way, and swallow our concern lest we be thought archaic?

That, of course, is what intimidation is all about. In this case, it seeks to make us tolerate that which is patently objectionable. Why objectionable? Three reasons come to mind:

Obscenity is the verbal counterpart of violence. It quite often signals a harsh and even embittered view of the world on the part of its user. The issue has little to do with the meaning of the word used -- any more than physical violence has to do with whether the aggressor hits you with an ugly blackjack or a gorgeous antique vase. It has more to do with the user's motivation. A nation willing to take a stand against physical violence -- terrorism, street crime, child abuse -- might consider taking a stand against verbal violence.

Expletives are among the drabbest of clich'es -- and hence the weakest of words. Like the blank squares in a Scrabble game, they can mean whatever anyone wants them to mean. Hardly expressions of individuality, they tend instead toward mindless conformity. A nation concerned about the capacity of its individuals to think inventively and influence others rightly might find it useful to teach and practice a precision of language that avoids such triteness.

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The public use of obscenity is inconsiderate of others. The fact is (again, if my ears serve me right) that most Americans don't habitually talk like movie characters, and many still find profanity offensive. Objections about freedom of speech -- the notion that I have the right to say anything I want to say at any time -- need to be examined in the light not of one's own absolute right but of the respect for others' rights upon which every society must be built.

Can anything be done? I think so. I suspect that the issue of verbal pollution is about where industrial pollution was a century ago -- or smoking 30 years ago. Back then, no one thought it proper to object. Nowadays we express a good deal of outrage over factories that befoul our common waters. We've begun to do the same about those who smoke up the air in our offices, airplanes, and restaurants.

What if we felt the same way about language? What if, along with signs in public places that say ``No Smoking, Please,'' we posted signs that said ``No Expletives, Please.'' We'd have to stand ready to enforce the rule. But in many ways the rule would enforce itself. It would serve notice that somebody cared.

And it may give us the courage to point to the sign and say (as we do to misusers of cigarettes), ``Would you mind either snuffing that out or going elsewhere?'' A Monday column

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