Friday, February 09, 2024

'Neither Angels Nor Devils'

A favorite story about Dr. Johnson reminded me of something the late critic John Simon had written on his blog five years ago. In a post titled “Curse Words,” abbreviated by Simon throughout as “CW,” he reviews profanity as used in various settings and languages, including Croat, Serbian and Hungarian. Simon then gets personal: “I myself do not advocate unrestrained use of CW, lest it, too, lose its sting.” 

Simon articulates my thinking about “CW” precisely. I have a foul mouth or, more precisely, a foul-mouth-in-waiting. I don’t think I have ever used obscenity involuntarily and I almost never write it except when sharing a joke with a friend. This is not because I’m a choirboy. Two prompts move me to use it: extreme anger or outrage (rare) or humor (fairly common). My father was a casual though somewhat genteel curser, at least by today’s standards. I heard him use fuck only once and that was because he was talking to a couple of cop buddies and didn’t realize I was listening.


My objection to most of the swearing I hear is less moral than linguistic. Overuse blunts it. Clich├ęs are similarly repellent. Both are lazy. The speaker refuses to articulate his thoughts and relies on an empty verbal gesture.


Back to Johnson. In 1742, a bookdealer named Thomas Osborne (pilloried by Pope in the Dunciad) bought the largest personal library to ever reach the market in England. Robert Harley, the former prime minister, left an estate that included 50,000 books, 350,000 pamphlets and more than 1,000 volumes of manuscripts. Osborne hired Johnson to catalogue the collection. Within three months, the first catalogues were published, covering 15,242 works. But Johnson, heroic reader and the son of a bookdealer, couldn’t resist browsing in some of the books he was evaluating. Osborne berated him, swearing copiously. Boswell writes:


“It had been confidently related, with many embellishments, that Johnson one day knocked Osborne down in his shop, with a folio, and put his foot upon his neck. The simple truth I had from Johnson himself. ‘Sir, he was impertinent to me, and I beat him. But it was not in his shop: it was in my own chamber.”


In his 1787 biography of Johnson, Sir John Hawkins reports Osborne had upbraided Johnson “in such coarse language as few men would use.” We can all sympathize with Johnson in his immoderate reply to Osborne, who is described by W. Jackson Bate as “a bull-like, thickset man, with a loud voice and a domineering manner.” We all know the type.         


Nine months after writing “Curse Words,” Simon was dead at age ninety-four. Here’s how he closes his post: “And what about the future of CW? Having no crystal ball, I cannot predict it. I am, however, all for it as long as it is used judiciously and not indiscriminately. As for my own limited, personal future, there is no telling what can prevail. I daresay that neither angels nor devils espouse nudity and uncalled-for CW.”

1 comment:

D. I. Dalrymple said...

Ahem, I hesitate to recommend a SpongeBob clip in genteel company, but the bit about "sentence enhancers" is pretty good stuff: