I don’t usually think about swear words very much. When I was growing up, we usually called it cursing or “dirty words,” although back when I was a chat host on AOL, we referred to such language as “profanity and vulgarity” or just a “violation of the Terms of Service.” I had an old aunt who referred to such talk as “blue.” But my favorite description of all time is the one used by Lillian Gilbreth in Cheaper by the Dozen. She referred to strong language as “Eskimo.” I don’t think you can say that today, lest it cast unwarranted aspersions upon the indigenous peoples of the Arctic.
Back in my Orthodox Jewish elementary school, swearing was an expellable offense. Word was that one of our fourth grade cohorts may have disappeared from our class for just such a reason. I don’t recall ever being tempted to let loose with an unbecoming epithet in my childhood or teenage days. Such language was all too familiar to me because, well, Dad, and the Bronx, and um, need I say more? And if my parents started one of their epic screaming arguments, well, that’s all she wrote, my friend. May as well stuff cotton in your ears and call it a night.
It seems crazy to me now, but in my early working days, I had not one, but two jobs in which the boss and another employee would regularly go at it in a darned good imitation of my folks. This was before I understood what the word “harassment” really meant.
Thanks to working for a government agency where we keep it clean, and thanks to the FCC and its infamous seven-second delay, I pretty much keep the seamier side of the English language out of my life. When I venture onto Netflix or pay to see an R-rated movie, well, it’s not like I don’t know what I’m getting myself into.
Then came President Donald Trump. Apparently, the man is a legendary pottymouth from Queens. The rumors of his colorful language that swirled about his candidacy have only proliferated since his election. I’m concerned that this is a bad influence on children and, well, the rest of us, too. However, I’m not at all certain of which came first, the chicken or the egg. Does the president’s choice of words give the public permission to follow suit? Or has such language already entered the mainstream to the extent that we should expect to hear it and read it everywhere, including in the White House?
I have always loved words. I have the utmost respect and admiration for dictionaries. I am fascinated by etymology. I enjoy word games, crossword puzzles and, especially, Scrabble. In that respect, I owe a debt to our filthy-mouthed politicians and our squeamish media outlets. For much to my delight, I now find word puzzles appearing in the news almost daily, and not in the works of Will Shortz either.
Take the title of an article that was posted by sfgate.com, one of the Bay Area’s favorite news sources, on the fourth of this month. The headline reads “Trump reportedly said ‘f—k’ several times during a meeting with Nancy Pelosi, and later apologized.”
I was excited. How could I rest until I had solved this word puzzle? The possibilities seem endless. Based on my disillusionment with our president’s performance, however, I think the offending word was likely “fink” (think Michael Cohen), or perhaps “funk” (think of the president’s popularity numbers). It has occurred to me that the words “folk” and “fork” would also fit, although I doubt that Trump’s intellect rises to that level of erudition.
The problem, of course, is that we have no rules for playing this game. For example, does the pair of dashes published online indicate that exactly two letters must be inserted to solve this puzzle? Or could the dashes be a mere indication that some unknown number of letters are missing and must be supplied by the solver? In the latter case, which would permit the insertion of three or more letters, the number of possibilities expand to something approaching the infinite. Among the likely candidates are “flask” (the president clearly needs one in his hip pocket these days), “flack” (think Sarah Huckabee Sanders), “flak” (self-explanatory) and, my favorite, “firetruck” (we’ll have to talk to Melania about that one). Even the word “frisk” has been suggested to me, but we may have to wait to see whether the House pursues impeachment proceedings for that one.
Oh, but it gets worse. And I mean much worse. As if the media’s Trumpian word puzzles weren’t enough to leave us scratching our collective heads, Pennsylvania newspaper The Morning Call recently reported that newly-elected member of the House of Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) publicly suggested that Trump won’t serve as president much longer, as Congress plans to “impeach the m———–.”
Now this is enough to give a cruciverbalist apoplexy. Starts with M? I mean, shoot and tarnation, that’s not much of a clue!
At first, I thought perhaps the word was “macroeconomist.” Nah, can’t be. Obviously, it’s something that’s not very nice. After all, opinion writer Molly Roberts pointed out in The Washiington Post that the mystery word means “somewhat more unpleasant than ‘unpleasant’ can convey.” Hmm. Perhaps the word is “meconium,” that is, if Tlaib’s intention was to equate the president with baby poop. Clearly there are too many dashes there to indicate “moron.” “Mephistopheles” is a nice long “M” word. Could she be referring to the Prez as a devil? I thought for a moment that the word might be “Malvolio,” which means “ill will,” but I really can’t see Trump as having much familiarity with the Bard. Perhaps Tlaib is a smart cookie whose intent was to use an epithet that is far beyond Trump’s vocabulary.
Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that Tlaib called the Donald a “miscreant.” Admittedly, this isn’t a very nice way to refer to the leader of the free world.
Oh, fiddlesticks! I guess its better than being referred to as a “mugwump” or a “milquetoast.”