Profanity Happens?

June 01, 1994|By JOHN YOUNG

WACO, TEXAS — Waco, Texas. -- If in fact there's truth to a certain obnoxious bumper sticker, there's none in the phrase, ''Profanity happens.''

Most profanity is quite conscious, a matter of cultivation, as is learning Latin or loving Shakespeare. You have to be taught how to cuss. Potty mouths are made and nurtured, not born.

Consider Michael Moorer, new world heavyweight boxing champ. The other day at his coming-out press conference, with two championship belts draped over him, Mr. Moorer said, ''I'm the [bleep]in' man. Yes I am.''

Everyone laughed. See how it works?

Several women here are working against it. They aren't interested in passing laws against gutter language. But they would like to give everyone who objects to it a chance to state it plainly. They want people to look before they bleep.

Chick Lewis, a nurse for the Department of Veterans Affairs, has devised an insignia. Borrowing from the no-smoking symbol, it says: ''Clean Language Spoken Here.''

In other words, if you must emit expletives, please step outside to do it.

Ms. Lewis and fellow volunteers in a group called Nurses for Christ reached the conclusion that the world needed such a symbol after volunteer work at area jails left their ears burning. The expletives weren't aimed at her and the volunteers; they were just the everyday expressions of people who had left off their manners with their street clothes.

''In our country, people just think it's cool to use vulgar language,'' she said, a trend she has trouble comprehending.

It's true. And it's hard to comprehend. A family can't peruse a record store without having corrosive rap lyrics administered like ear drops. And, of course, if as a parent you haven't taken in a ''family movie'' recently and ended up wincing at least once, you haven't taken in a movie.

But cleaning up music and movies is not really Ms. Lewis' overriding concern. She really just wants people to give their own actions a little thought. Hence, the insignia.

''It's just something for people to think about in raising their children and keeping their homes,'' and in respecting others' sensibilities.

Ms. Lewis thinks she's opened the eyes of a few women in the county jail by asking them to think about their language.

''Girls,'' she says to them, ''do you know there's a way you can improve yourself and it doesn't cost a red penny?'' To that end, she invited them to take a good-natured oath that ''you're not going to curse anymore.''

A few days ago she was visiting a prison facility and saw one of the young ladies who'd taken her oath. An unsolicited hug told Ms. Lewis she'd gotten through to the young inmate, who confirmed that she now puts more thought into what she says. One small rehabilitative step? Or a giant bound?

Ms. Lewis wants to see her ''Clean Language'' insignia in every place that will have it. I know of a lot of work places (newsrooms, for instance) that will demur. She knows that, too.

I'm a free-speech disciple. I don't want government telling me what to say or how to say it. Ms. Lewis' effort isn't anti-free speech. People who put up ''Clean Language'' signs are employing their opinion in the marketplace of ideas. Ms. Lewis says it's not the under-the-breath stuff that concerns her. It's the habitual gutterization of everyday life.

''Profanity happens''? Actually, no -- not when you think about it.

John Young is editorial-page editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald.

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