'Blue Streak' -- X-words, now and forever

August 04, 1996|By MARC ARKIN | MARC ARKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Blue Streak: Swearing, Free Speech, and Sexual Harassment," by Richard Dooling. New York: Random House. 256 pages. $24.

Whether or not you enjoy "Blue Streak" depends a lot on how you feel about one-joke movies. For myself, I've always had a weakness for them. Besides, how can you not like a book that begins with the line "Men and women can be very different ` an observation that was once so self-evident nobody could make a dime writing about it. Nowadays, it's front page news and the stuff of how-to best-sellers ..."

"Blue Streak" is a book about strong language; in fact, it could be described as a natural history of the f-word, except it also includes a chapter about the s-word and one about the h-word as well. It studies the etymology of the f-word, no mean feat because the clean language patrol kept it out of dictionaries until the 1970s; its Freudian psycholinguistic significance; and current federal law governing its public use, in case you need a handy reference.

Along the way, a reader can pick up some truly useful information. Contrary to popular belief, the f-word is not Anglo-Saxon but Germanic. It has a host of truly funky now-extinct synonyms. And, the reason that men swear more than women is that swearing, unlike language generally, is governed by the "lower" subcortical structures in the brain stem and limbic system, primitive regions of the brain that are more active in men than in women. Who would have guessed?

Now, obviously, this book is not for the squeamish. Its multi-page litanies of vulgar language wear pretty thin after a few chapters. Nevertheless, "Blue Streak" has a serious side, linking the right to public vulgarity with other First Amendment freedoms. The author, a novelist and lawyer specializing in employment discrimination law, points out that not until 1978 did the Supreme Court permit the government to ban speech outright because it was offensive to the audience. The case was Federal Communications Commission vs. Pacifica Radio, better known as the "seven-dirty-words-you-can't-say-on-the-radio" case.

Since then, it has been downhill all the way. The forces of political correctness have successfully declared war on free speech in schools and workplaces, in the misguided belief that if they suppress bad language, they will eradicate bad thoughts. Today, if a male co-worker's pungent language offends a woman employee, she can sue him under federal law for creating a hostile work environment ` and collect damages even if the experience had no discernible effect on her performance, position or pay. As Dooling observes, there is no mean irony afoot here: the same feminists who (rightly) demand gender equality in employment claim that women's sensibilities are too tender to bear the rough and tumble of the workplace and call for special protections unavailable to men in the same job.

At the end of the day, it is sobering to reflect, with Dooling, that, as a nation, we are trading away our birthright to say what we think, no matter how profane and eccentric, for a government enforced homogeneous inoffensiveness that will leave both our democracy and our language the poorer.

Marc Arkin, an associate professor at Fordham Law School, ha a Ph.D. in American religious history and a J.D. from Yale Law school. Her articles and commentaries have been widely published.

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