Peter Altschuler in Marketing, Advertising, Offline Marketing Head of Marketing and Creative Strategy • Wordsworth & Company LLC Mar 16, 2017 · 2 min read · +700

WTF and other unnecessaries

I have a problem with obscenity. It's lost its punch. And that's a shame.

There was a time when Anglo-Saxonisms raised a few eyebrows. When the words were so shocking in print that one had to take notice. Now they're used so indiscriminately in every publication, online forum, and political discourse that they've stopped being, well... useful.

WTF and other unnecessariesTime past and time present

In the past (and mine's long), one could always rely on certain people to incorporate expletives any time that they opened their mouths. They were usually the people you would never introduce to your children or to anyone you cared about. And they weren't necessarily stupid -- at least not in terms of IQ. But they were deaf and blind to the norms of society, or they simply didn't care what people thought. And that's fine. But they wouldn't get invited out to dinner. Then or now.

Comedy may be to blame. Beginning with the likes of Moms Mabley and Lenny Bruce and, after them, George Carlin and Richard Pryor, swearing was shorthand for whupping the establishment upside the head. And it was, for the most part, very funny. Yet, today, it seems that nothing is considered to be comedy unless it's obscene... or uttered by Ellen DeGeneres, who seems to avoid all those four-letter words and can still be hysterical. (Bill Cosby avoided them, too, but... let's not discuss him at this point.)

In decline

Then there were the Reagan years when funds for education were considered less important. Just like air traffic controllers. And that led to books on the dumbing down of America and to the exasperation of teachers who would rather reclassify Black English as acceptable (Ebonics) than try to instruct standard English to their inner city kids. 

Today (and it depends on which study you read), America ranks somewhere in the range of seventeenth to twenty-third in terms of students' math and reading scores. We've gone from "The G.E. College Bowl" to "Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader" (and judging by the latter show, too many contestants would not have advanced to sixth grade). And, in the process of being less smart, vocabulary's gone out of style. 

Along with it went precision and incisiveness and wit. This exchange between two 18th Century Englishmen (the actual speakers are the subject of dispute)

     "You, sir, will certainly either die upon the gallows or of a social disease."

     "That depends, sir, upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress."

is as likely to happen today as it would be for our current President to know how to use more than 200 words.

Easy and/or lazy

So when I see "WTF" in the title of a series explaining new digital concepts or when expletives appear where they don't add a thing to someone's comments, their inclusion makes me sigh. But it's not because I find the words offensive. It's because it shows a total lack of interest in the power of English.

English, I admit, is a thief. It contains more than a million words because it glibly stole so many from innumerable languages. That gives it more than a million opportunities to speak and write with clarity, precision, and strength. But, more and more, nobody does.

It's easy (or lazy) to pepper your discourse with words that, before now, were forbidden in what's called polite society. But maybe that's the sobering, sorrowful truth: our society's no longer polite. We'd rather call the folks we disagree with something rude than take the time and skill to reply with an alternative, persuasive point of view.

Do not go

My current peeve involves the phrase "go missing." "Missing" is not a destination. It is not an activity. But it is a state of (non)being. You can vanish, disappear, and be missing, but you can't "go." You also can't go extinct (though that's where English language skill seems headed). You become it.

As Mr Higgins said in desperation about our cousins across the sea, "Use proper English, you're regarded as a freak. Oh, why can't the English learn to speak."

Words matter

Like the old riddle that asks, "What's a four letter word that means intercourse?" it would be nice to think that most could provide the non-vulgar reply. My fear is that most people can't. 

So, please, consider this. The next time you're ready to utter or write, "Kyle is so fucking stupid," the grammatical interpretation of which is that he's stupid about coitus, you might, instead, say that "You could put Kyle's brain in a thimble and have enough room to use the thing as a maraca."

Peter Altschuler Mar 29, 2017 · #10

#1 @Dean Owen, Forsooth, sir. Elizabethans were extremely adept at using imagery in place of obscenity. Among my favorites is "She prays with her knees upward." A gentle description of a wanton woman.

Just to vex those middle finger flicking drivers, I don't flip back. Instead, I bite my thumb. Though it's generally considered to mean the same thing, it doesn't quite.

It implies something potentially more upsetting -- that the object of the gesture is a cuckold. So, rather than suggest that the person perform a physiologically impossible act, it asserts that his wife has been enjoyed by another. As QE I says in "Shakespeare in Love," "She's been plucked since last I saw her and not by you."

Harvey Lloyd Mar 29, 2017 · #9

Yes, back in the Jurassic period when i was a teenager the various words did drum up a social outcry of heathen. Today though the slang words tend to explain someone's emotions in writing. Social media has opened up a door that we want to get the whole of personal relationships through. I could write that i am angry, bitter or in some way negatively impacted or i could write WTF.

This three letter statement somehow has become an emotional alignment statement. I know exactly how you feel when i read. Agree or disagree set aside i do understand that emotional trauma you are experiencing.

Unfortunately though the overuse of anything will cause the punch to be deflated. Eventually it just becomes background noise that writers/speakers use to try and inflate a topic and add emotions that everyone has now discounted.

Peter Altschuler Mar 29, 2017 · #8

Years ago, when I was still a young curmudgeon (as opposed to the old one I am now), I was driving from Brooklyn to Queens with my three-year-old daughter in her car seat in the back. Traffic was confoundingly bad. When I tried to get around a particularly inattentive driver, I heard a small voice from behind me shout, "Come on, schmuck!" I knew it was time to rethink my choice of words.

Fast forward 30 years, and again I had small children in the back. So, as much as I wanted to vent my irritation at the often worse drivers in LA, I had to find a way to express myself without leaving an unwanted impression. That's where Reverend Spooner assisted my efforts as I muttered that those drivers were all motal tucking forons.

Robert Cormack Mar 29, 2017 · #7

Good post, @Peter Altschuler. I think swearing was important in the Lenny Bruce era simply because America had to be shaken up a bit. Carlin and Pryor took it as far as they could—Pryor more so because it was a black thing (anger, resentment, etc). Today, we're really just using the expletive, hoping someone will think we're mad or offended or bucking political correctness. I notice young female journalists are using a lot of expletives now, especially in their headlines. Maybe it's to show anger or frustration, all valid, but I'm more inclined to think it's just to get noticed. That makes f**k cheap for everybody.

Praveen Raj Gullepalli Mar 29, 2017 · #6

I have an inkling of the horror you experience Peter...akin to what the face on the cover of Algernon Blackwood's Tales of Mystery and Imagination reveals! :) Great expression compliments all but expletives suit only a chosen few when they spew. They definitely wouldn't suit you ;)

Claire L Cardwell Mar 29, 2017 · #5

It's incredible how in the space of a few years the word 'fuck' is everywhere...... I remember using it once during an argument and got slapped across the chops for my pains when I was a teenager. Then was horrified to hear my conservative mother using it mildly a few years later when back from college.....

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Jim Murray Mar 29, 2017 · #4

Good points Peter. But I still manage to garner a certain amount of resentment for writing the way I talk. I just can't fucking help it.

Todd Jones Mar 29, 2017 · #3

Guilty as charged, although I place the blame of it all squarely on my work environment and the assembly of scoundrels with whom I share my day. I do however prefer the company of these scoundrels. They have the best f*%k!ng stories... with the explicative used herein as either a verb and an adjective.

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