I am old enough to remember when the prospect of having one’s mouth washed out with soap was a credible threat. Not that such a punishment was ever administered to me, but the one from whom I had learned all those forbidden words might well have reached for the Fels-Naptha if I had repeated them to her.
This was in the era of George Carlin deconstructing and riffing on the Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television, but I grew up flinching and squeamish at the mere prospect of dirty words. My verbal landscape was Norman Rockwell Hell. Those fearsome monosyllables did not pass my lips. My friends mocked me for my fastidiousness—but my impulse was toward self-preservation.
I do not know at what age I became fluent in profanity. It was certainly no earlier than my 30s. Even in my late 20s, in the throes of a long-term romantic relationship, I couched my intimate declarations in paraphrase and euphemism. I could not easily swear.
Today, of course, in the proper mood (and in my own living room) I let loose long compound curses, veritable freight-trains of obscenity. I have been in that mood often over the past several years, and for solid personal reasons. My scat solos of scatology occasion physical stress and spiritual relief; the Universe and its ostensible Creator know I am displeased, but perhaps cannot help snapping fingers to my maledictory improvisations.
What gets said in my living room stays in my living room. At times (most often late at night) I would forget myself and mistake Facebook for my living room, but I am more careful now about blurting my anger out in a public forum. When moved to so erupt, I may blurt and delete—or type and not post. My overriding concern is for the continued health and credibility of the publication you now read. My freedom of speech is tempered, ironically enough, by my position as publisher—and by being answerable for what I say.
And while I know that we’re all adults here, I strive to keep expletives out of The Syncopated Times. My exceptions to that policy are when such an expression may fall within a direct quote that is poignant and essential to a story, or when a writer of skill and eloquence uses a coarse word in passing, and not emphatically. Being inured to these words (through seeing them everywhere and using them every day), I may not even notice the latter. And through such inattention, I have lately let a couple of questionable words get into print.
I may not have noticed, but an attentive reader did, and he called me up to let me know about it. He wasn’t happy, and since I know and respect this reader I took his objections seriously. The bad language, he said, was detrimental to what I was accomplishing with this paper. I answered honestly: I hadn’t remembered those words in the piece. They’d seemed integral and in keeping with the writer’s voice. I offered my apologies and promised that I’d edit more carefully in the future.
That same day, I had another conversation with a reader who is, in fact, soon to be my long-awaited assistant here. His view was more analytical. “People are used to seeing these words online,” he said, “but when one is on the printed page, it’s a permanent, physical thing.” He then mentioned how, as a reader of The New Yorker, he was astonished by the level of profanity he now encountered there. “It’s like listening to a librarian swear,” he said.
I couldn’t help but think of that brilliant roughneck, Harold Ross, who created The New Yorker as a genteel and sophisticated alternative to the rowdy humor magazines of the 1920s. Ross, and his long-term successor, William Shawn, kept the language within the publication clean. It wasn’t just a matter of appeasing the Postal authorities, who were still observing Anthony Comstock’s standards. There was a certain elegance in expressing ideas without recourse to the vocabulary of the barracks or the locker room.
If people do rotate posthumously, I imagine Ross and Shawn have achieved a certain number of RPMs of late. What I will say about The New Yorker is that their fact-checking department is still the best in the world, and the editing is keen—and they don’t step on a writer’s “voice” (even when maybe they should). And if I had one percent of their subscriber base, I’d be doing very well indeed.
What price readership? If I wrote like I spoke in my living room, and encouraged other contributors to do the same, it might attract some gawkers, but those for whom the paper is published—the musicians, the fans, and the festival organizers—would head for the exits.
I take hurt feelings and offended sensibilities seriously because I don’t consider this my paper—it’s our paper. Though a few unbelievable turns of fate it has been entrusted to me. Though I do get to have fun with it while putting it together each month, I never for a minute forget that The Syncopated Times is a trust, held for the mutual benefit of all who love ragtime, jazz, and swing.
Those cherished forms should be celebrated and furthered with elegant and sophisticated—or at least clear and acceptable—language, and I pledge to do so.
In other words, I’ll keep it clean.