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The great media “shithole” controversy showed how our ideas about profanity are shifting

Language norms are changing, but not all media outlets are up to date.

Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL), on left, has lambasted President Trump for his disparagement of certain countries that supply the US with immigrants
Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL), on left, has lambasted President Trump for his disparagement of certain countries that supply the US with immigrants.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s observations about Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa last week, many have been surprised to see the open utterance and printing of the word “shithole” throughout the mainstream media. The notoriously prim New York Times printed the word for the first time in its history (though kept it out of the headline), and I have been bemused at being able to happily sound off with the word on CNN and MSNBC, where hosts casually assured me that “this is cable.”

The phrase briefly threw other media outlets into a tizzy, though. “I am rendering judgment on whether we can use the word ‘shithole’ on the radio,” tweeted WNYC’s news director shortly after the story broke. NPR’s newscasters gravely warned listeners last Friday about the extremely offensive language they were about to hear, and the network was at least briefly rationing its “shitholes” to one an hour. Some newspapers still stuck with “s***hole” and similar evasions.

The episode can be seen as a teaching moment, in which we come to understand that some people’s conception of what profanity is has become disconnected from the reality of our times. Profanity we have indeed, but it is not the grand old “four letter words,” which, regardless of their actual letter count, refer to religion, sex, and excrement.

Words are treated as profane on the basis of what a society is truly hung up about. And let’s face it — American society as a whole is vastly less worried about taking the Lord’s name in vain or mentioning copulation and evacuation in public than it once was. Rather, what truly concerns us, horrifies us, inspires a desire to shield people from the full force of the language, are words like the n-word, the f-word referring to homosexual men, and the c-word referring to, well, you know.

Who, in 2018, is gravely offended by references to excrement?

This is why I suspect that even the more cautious news outlets are more “worried” about printing or airing “shithole” than truly worried. It is also why a president would be capable of uttering it in an official setting at all. Trump is, to be sure, almost vegetatively unfiltered, which is why he has become the first president to use that word in a context in which the public could become privy to it. Note, however, that speculations that one of these days he might drop the n-word in a similar situation are almost surely fantasy; even with Trump I feel confident writing that for posterity.

Even as obnoxious a personage as him would not dare to use that word, or the other two I alluded to, for public consumption. That those words exert a check upon someone as uncontrollable as Trump is a demonstration that they are today’s true profanity.

The nature of profanity in English has evolved over time, and the gatekeepers sometimes fall behind. In earlier English, profanity consisted of swearing to God and other religious figures in contexts seen as far too minor for prayer (hence the shorthand usage “swearing” to mean “cursing”). To say “Oh, my God” was to “take the Lord’s name in vain.” Hence the development of euphemisms such as “Gosh,” “zounds” (for “his wounds”), and “by George” instead of “by God.”

Later, amidst the emergence of a self-consciously bourgeois class, an extreme ticklishness about references to the body settled in. People began to refer to cuts of poultry as “white” and “dark” meat to avoid referring to “breasts.” One does not precisely rest in a rest room. Here emerged a situation where words for private parts were either clinical (penis) or earthy (fill in the blank) but never just neutral. (An anatomy book from 1400, in contrast, casually referred to the “cunt.”)

The idea that words like “damn,” “hell,” “shit,” and “fuck” are “the bad words” is a hangover from this era, which indeed persisted until relatively recently. An episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show portrayed middle-class Rob and Laura Petrie as gravely horrified that their little son Richie had used a word the script could not even specify at the time but which is clearly “fuck.” Rob refers to it as “evil.” To be sure, few of us would be ecstatic if our child used that word at school today, but we would be a far less scandalized. A modern version of the episode would have Richie dropping the n-bomb.

A bestselling book has the title Go the Fuck to Sleep

Certainly, there are Americans who remain deeply uncomfortable with the “four letter” words. A Mormon of my acquaintance, for example, refused to see the musical “The Book of Mormon” because of the language used in it, and I assume she was not alone.

Also, matters of age, region and personal predilection as well as religion matter here. However, in an America in which a bestselling parody of children’s book is called Go the Fuck to Sleep, a hit song is titled “Fuck You,” OMG is a favored exclamation of apple-cheeked teens nationwide, and the president feels comfortable saying “shithole” in a suit and tie while meeting with senators, it is safe to say that the words we are formally taught are “bad” are less profane than salty.

One may shield one’s children from them — but within the knowledge that by the time they are roughly 12 they will be bathed in them daily through usage by peers, slightly older kids, and the media they partake of, and will likely be using them themselves whenever we are out of earshot.

Consider: However much he indulges in racist code, if Donald Trump were caught on a hot mic crowing that “The niggers just need to shape up” or “If only she’d stop being such a cunt,” it would likely be one of the very few things that actually would spark a sincere effort to eject him from office — so utterly unthinkable in public usage are they. That is, they are profane in the true sense. (Yes, he was caught using “pussy,” but in use not as an epithet but as a word for a body part. And “pussy,” while distinctly unsavory, does not carry the pitiless, accusatory sting of “cunt.”)

Meanwhile, “shithole”? I suggest the media has been correct to be grown up about this, even if a few outlets seemed stuck in the 1950s. My 6-year-old saw me on TV the other day using the word multiple times and frankly she will be just fine. What’s significant is that she has never even heard the n-word, the f-word, or the c-word, won’t for a while, and will be taught not to use them as stringently as she is taught not to run out into the street.

It is a positive development that it is hatred toward vulnerable minorities that is truly considered obscene, and that we euphemize words through which some people express such loathing. We — a few stodgy editors and public-news producers aside —can congratulate ourselves that we recognize that this is the new profanity, not words referring to things like poop and sexual congress.

John McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, and music history at Columbia University; his latest books are Words on the Move and Talking Back, Talking Black.

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