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The New York Sun

 

Letting Words Fly

June 07, 2007

By John H. McWhorter

In “42nd Street,” a film made in 1932, when Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel take a chorus of “Shuffle Off To Buffalo,” one sings, “He’ll do right by little Nelly/with a shotgun at his … tummy and away they’ll go … ”

The character is obviously about to say belly, which rhymes with Nelly, but primly opts not to out of some sense of propriety. Apparently, in 1932 respectability had conferred some kind of arbitrary taboo status on the word belly. Today it looks downright silly.

In that light, hooray for the Second Circuit court for overturning on Monday the Federal Communications Commission’s equally random policy laid down last year, fining broadcasters for the use of certain words in live shows.

The ruling was sparked by Cher using the F-word in 2002 on the Billboard Awards show, Nicole Richie using that one plus the S-word on the same show the year after, and then the last straw was the year after that, when Bono used the Fword — appending with an “ing” — in a joyous eruption on an NBC show.

The problem is that such a ruling has little application to modern society. I think of the TV show, “Married with Children,” in which teenaged Kelly made references to ample familiarity with sex and liquor, in outfits that left little to the imagination. Yet while neither she nor Al Bundy ever uttered certain words pertaining to those subjects, real-life versions of them surely would. Inconsistency.

In modern America premarital sex is considered ordinary. Men walk down the street showing the tops of their briefs and unmarried couples casually have and raise children. Whoever has any problem with these things also knows that they are irreversible: the horse is long out of the barn. And we’re supposed to shudder when Bono lets fly with a cuss word?

Never mind that live broadcasts on networks are now but a few drops in the broadcast bucket. Honest language rages along cable shows like “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.”

Then, of course, there are rap recordings. If we see some reining in of the Nword, B-word, and H-word, we can be sure that s--t and f--k and much else will remain staple lexicon — and this is young America’s cross-racial musical lingua franca.

As such, it’s hard to see what the point is of getting our knickers in a twist over Cher and Bono. It would seem that one concern is what children hear. But good parents have control over what their children are exposed to, and catching Nicole Richie saying s--t one night will hardly drive little Justin or Caitlin to drink.

After all, medieval English speakers didn’t have our horror of sexual terms. Medical books referred to the female pudenda with a word beginning with c and ending with t. For them, religion was the big hang-up. “Zounds!” was a cute way of not saying “By God’s wounds!”

The sex thing came later. The Communications Act of 1934 laid down that our new hang-up was language that “describes or depicts sexual or excretory activities.” That law was written by people born in the Victorian era, and was part of an atmosphere that led to things we now chuckle at such as the buttoning up of flapper Betty Boop into a frill-collared housewife. We flock to revival house showings of racier films made before 1934, smugly shaking our heads at what was considered indecent back in the day.

But isn’t our horror at someone venturing an F- or S-word today on the air just a continuation of this? Where, precisely, is the line? I sincerely don’t see it. At least when 19th-century Americans were referring to white meat to avoid saying “breast,” their societal mores were consistent with the uptightness: they were swathed in multiple layers of clothes and sent unmarried pregnant women away “to visit relatives” to give birth. Our America celebrates Madonna as “an icon” but gets the vapors when Cher says “f--k?” Inconsistency.

Elsewhere, I have indeed argued against the idea that “real” is always the best choice — in reference to the notion that violent, misogynistic rap lyrics are automatically wise and “political.” In this case, however, “real” is demeaning to a race that has been through too much already, preaching defeatism to persons who need so much more.

When Bono expresses joy in the same way as, frankly, most Americans do in spontaneous moments, he is neither channeling a racial identity nor suggesting a political orientation. He is just being human. Leveling fines and cluckclucking on talk radio is an unreflective vestige of the prudery of another time when most men felt naked outdoors without a hat.

Actions speak louder than words. So why obsess over words? Instead, we should be rolling up our sleeves and working with the world itself.

Original Source: http://daily.nysun.com/Repository/ml.asp?Ref=TllTLzIwMDcvMDYvMDcjQXIwMDkwMQ==&Mode=HTML&Locale=english-skin-custom

 

 
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