Newsletter 65: On Profanity

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. Here’s one from July 2017, about how I feel guilty that I don’t curse more, and how guilty I feel that I would feel guilty about something so dumb.

There has been much talk of profanity this week, thanks largely to our charming new White House Press Secretary. The New York Times, for the first time in its august history, ran the phrase “suck his own c-ck,” a phrase so evocative and bewildering that I just censored it in my own newsletter without thinking about it. This has led us into the sort of “what profanities are worthy of public consumption?” discussion that we haven’t had since, well, Rahm Emanuel, I guess. (Apparently the Washington Post used to direct people who searched the word “fuck” to their Miss Manners page, amusingly.)

I rarely, if ever, curse in my writing. This is not out of some sort of “you don’t need that flim-flam-filth!” Cosby-ing superiority, a term whose definition sure has changed dramatically in the last few years. I appreciate the need for the power of a vulgarity from time to time; sometimes there’s simply no other fucking way to put it. But I try to resist it at every opportunity, and even when I do sneak it into a movie review or a sports column, I usually dash out one of the letters. In my New York magazine column, I quoted Conor McGregor’s use of the word “fag — t” and even though it was a direct quote, and was important to the piece, I’ve been feeling gross about it all week. I don’t curse much in my regular life either, even before I had kids. It just doesn’t come naturally to me. I don’t think think there’s anything wrong, or untoward, or even unworthy, about profanity. I’m not Mitt Romney. It’s just not my thing.

There are obvious exceptions for this, of course: Namely, sporting events, and traffic. The person I am when I am watching a sporting event I am emotionally invested in, and the person I am when I am driving a car, that person bears little resemblance to the Will Leitch I attempt to project to the world and believe myself deep down to be. If you were to catch me when stuck behind some idiot going under the speed limit who won’t get out of the left lane, or after Travis Ishikawa hit that home run to end the 2014 NLCS, you would think I were Anthony Scaramucci crossed with Artie Lange having a seizure. But those are extreme circumstances. I am usually under more control than that.

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A lot of it depends on the word. “Shit” is a word so common that I essentially use it, in speech and in writing, as a placeholder. “I don’t know where the keys are, shit, they could be anywhere.” They don’t even care if you say “shit” on broadcast television anymore. I remember when Dr. Greene was dying on “ER” and he yelled, “Shit!” and it was the most shocking thing ever; they had to, shit, like run it by standards and practices months before to get a special dispensation. Now nobody cares. I’m fully expecting Super Grover to yell “shit!” the next time he crashes when trying to fly. Shit is no big deal.

But there are certain words that I, will under no circumstances, ever say or type. You could threaten me with torture, and you’re still not going to get me to say or type “c-nt.” But it’s not usually so cut and dried. Why will I hyphen out “c-ck” but not “dick” or even “fuck?” I might need a psychiatrist to answer that one.

There’s also the idea of context, as well as company. I’m more likely to curse in a private conversation — particularly with someone I’ve known for a long time, if just because they’re more likely to have known me when I was younger and cursed a lot more — than I am in any sort of public setting. No matter how angry I might be, I’d never, or at least I’d try to never, scream anything worse than “goddammit” at a game; there are kids nearby, kids who aren’t as used to me yelling at Mike Matheny as my own are. This might sound strange, but this goes for social media as well. I feel like there’s a difference between cursing in a piece I’ve written — in which you have opted into, in which I have the time and space to work my way up to it and justify it — and just tossing out “what is happening to this fucking country?” in a Tweet, where it’s basically wadded in a ball and thrown in your face whether you were looking for it or not. I’m not sure why social media is the place I try to have my best decorum, but it is.

I want to be clear here: There is absolutely nothing wrong with cursing. It’s more honest, more searing, more real than trying to disguise and couch your true feelings in socially acceptable language. I love to read creative vulgarity, even while personally eschewing it myself. That’s probably intellectually inconsistent, but whaddya gonna fuckin’ do?

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Written by

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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