Zounds! Such B----y Awful Language!

February 11, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- It is a miserable day on the planet, or at least on the northern part of the planet's Western Hemisphere, and CBS begins the evening news with a report on the relentless cold. The camera homes in on a young, neat, specimen of the Chicago tundra. The man is asked his opinion of the winter wonderland and he answers cheerily: ''It sucks.''

My sentiments exactly.

But not my language.

The next night, another of the cameras endlessly stalking Tonya Harding films her while she practices her routine. When she slips up, the camera zooms in. You don't have to be a lip reader to recognize the outline of the word, a four-letter synonym for ''dung.''

I don't flinch at this. Nor do I purse my lips into some variation of ''Tsk, tsk.'' I am neither pure nor prim about language that used to make a mythical sailor blush and a dotty elder wash a child's mouth out with soap.

Years ago, when my 3-year-old daughter broke a bottle on a supermarket floor and loudly blurted out a four-letter word, I murmured, ''Isn't it terrible what they pick up on the playground!'' I didn't fool anyone.

Nevertheless, I am fascinated at what's happening to words. We seem to be in this fluid era where any number of formerly dirty words are being washed clean. At the same, formerly acceptable terms have become fighting words.

The traffic light of language, the signal that says what does and doesn't go in public, is operated by a button that is labeled: ''Offensive.'' Offensive language is usually given the red light.

For a long time there was a single standard of such words, a community threshold of sensitivity. But now the definition of what is offensive and who is offended changes as often as the venue.

Consider for example the anatomically correct speech that makes its way into the daily news. Remember when various male television anchors faced with reporting toxic shock syndrome had to practice saying the word ''tampons'' into the mirror before they could get it out over the airwaves?

By the time the Bobbitt case ended, American journalists were talking and writing about penises with more clinical objectivity -- I almost said detachment -- than even their seventh-grade hygiene teachers. And few people were offended.

We have also had multicultural revisions. I'm not talking about basic Farrakhan-speak. I'm talking about what is often hostilely described as politically correct speech. When the Los Angeles Times offered up some guidelines on ethnic, racial and gender terms last November they asked reporters to ask themselves: ''Are they [these terms] likely to be considered offensive?''

Among those words the newspaper labeled most likely to be offensive were babe, Bible-thumper, bitch, crippled, dyke -- and we're still in the D's. Moving right along the alphabet they added: gal, hick, Oriental and white trash.

But at the same time we're minding our p's and q's, or at least our ''gals'' and ''white trash'' in one part of the media culture, we have Howard Stern, expletiving all over the radio and Snoop Doggy Dogg singing ''For All My Niggaz and Bitches'' on a CD.

Indeed it is entirely possible to find people who will not deign to speak or write of the Washington Redskins or the Cleveland Indians, but will feel perfectly comfortable telling you that the teams suck.

In general, I agree with anatomically correct speech. It would be absurd to speak of John Bobbitt's ''private parts,'' let alone his ''peepee.'' Anatomy isn't vulgarity.

I also think it's correct -- politically or otherwise -- to be careful about the names we call people. Yes, some folks are too sensitive. On the other hand, I wish that the teen-agers who buy rap music were more sensitive.

I understand as well that sometimes we have to use words to discuss their use (see all of the above). And yes, the weight of words changes. On the offensiveness scale they may move from felony to misdemeanor. The traffic signal changes from red to yellow, stop to slow. But does everything go?

Maybe those of us who still use words like ''vulgar'' should align ourselves as an ethnic group. Those of us who prefer that people keep their profanity private could declare ourselves offended. We could offer alternative sentences to the verbally impoverished.

As for the weather report and the state of the language: It's a bone-chilling, horrific, brain-numbing, ice-forming, seasonal-affecting-disordering sort of winter that makes a person long for global warming. But it doesn't s---.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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