February 23, 2012

In Defense of Vulgarity

“A war of words is being waged in the newsroom,” wrote the ombudsman of the Washington Post, “and, readers, you may be able to help mediate.”

At issue was whether the Post should allow direct quotes that used “profanity.” Even more radical, could they allow writers to use “profanity” in their commentary. Ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton cited the following example:

Here’s an opening to a story [the Post’s style writer] wrote on the annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show in February and the female dog that won it. (Okay, you’ve been cautioned about what’s coming, and it’s mildly sexist.) This is the version that did not run:

“After winning ‘best in show’ from the Westminster Kennel Club, a dog has every right to get cranky, to go diva, to not sit, to not stay. But over the past 24 hours, as paparazzi have trailed her around New York, Grand Champion Foxcliffe Hickory Wind has borne her title with quiet dignity and grace. This bitch isn’t acting like one.”

Many of the comments asked the Post to hold the line for decency. Mine did not:

“Good writing is vivid writing,” I asserted. “And sometimes a vulgarity (or to use Mr. Pexton’s rather sanctimonious term ‘profanity,’ with its whiff of the church pew) — a well-placed vulgarity conveys the force and deftness of one’s meaning. To dance around the word (‘Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a darn’) is to cripple the meaning, make it posed and forced, turn Rhett Butler into Aunt Pittypat. The operative idea here is the “well placed” vulgarity.

“By contrast, the overuse of a vulgarity dulls its force and empties it of meaning, as we see now with the all-purpose use of the street term for copulation. If you trust your writer, if you believe that person is a professional, if you trust your own ear for contemporary language usage, you will allow the vivid use of language without feeling the need to make excuses for it.”


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