George Bernard Shaw put it this way — ‘The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.”
Not that every Brit is Shakespeare — that would be a slight over-statement — but regardless of how profane they are by nature most Brits are a hell of a lot better at using the language to express themselves; it’s a subtle thing — having to do with not only word choices but just a general facility with the language itself. Britain’s is a more literary culture by nature and history. On the surface, its obsessions seem fuddy-duddy & Old World. Colonial even. And British culture is all those things — for better and worse.
One of the better cultural obsessions is the language. Brits are no match for the French when it comes to compulsive defensiveness regarding their language — the French have ‘L’Acadamie Francaise’ overseeing the language, literally allowing or not allowing (the most usual outcome) new words in. English (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) has 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 ‘obscure’ words in more limited use. French, by comparison, has 100,000 words — roughly half as many. But (this is significant), each French word has an average of 3 definitions! Words are less descriptive by nature and more (my French professor at Vassar put it) “analytical”.
English literally grows every year as new words are added or coined. French doesn’t do that. Instead of inventing new words (or bringing foreign words into its vocabulary), it adds definitions or puts old words together to form a kind of French Language Pretzel. Even so — the French are simply proud of their language and see it as part of their cultural bulwark. That pride translates into not just a love for the language but an overall sense that how they say things is part of who they are — as individuals and as a culture.
Boy, was that long-winded.
The point is — The French and the English (among others) are far more connected to their languages than Americans are to English. We almost seem to speak English for lack of anything else to speak. Consequently, we Americans always seem more at odds with English than at peace with it. It’s more an obstacle to expressing ourselves than a tool.
If George Carlin had been English, he would never have conceived of ‘The 7 Dirty Words’. It wouldn’t have been on his radar. Yes, true, you couldn’t say any of those words on the BBC either, but it wasn’t because they quaked at the sound of them as we seem to. Even in public spaces, words that shock Americans get aired regularly. The broadcast moratorium on them is decorum and not the threat of legal action.
Here in America though, those words are always an issue. An example — I refrain from using the word ‘F*ck’ here on this blog. In order to be part of any possible ad revenue stream (such as there is one), one has to avoid using certain words. The title of this blog puts me in a hazy zone of quasi-acceptability. For all our ‘freedom of speech’, Americans sure seem intimidated by certain words.
And that’s the point (finally!)
Americans are intimidated by their own language. It goes beyond ‘swear words’. To a degree our sensitivity to oppressive words (the ‘n-word’, ‘kike’ (being a Jew, I get to use the word — how it is), et cetera is appropriate; it recognizes how certain words become weaponized. Those words are always aimed at specific groups — they are weaponized — and need to be seen as weapons.
We’re not talking about those words. It’s like comparing sex and rape. Not the same things as similar as they are in form.
Americans — being less comfortable and at home with their own language — have a terrible habit of using English to obscure truth rather than reveal it. Want to know what I mean? Listen to anyone in Congress yak away for 30 seconds. On average, they’ll use about 50 words when 10 would have sufficed. All those extra words add fog to the mix and not clarity.
When a Mitch McConnell is forced to answer questions, Mitch is a master at using words to completely misrepresent what he’s really saying. He gets away with it easily because so few Americans — including and especially our news media — are comfortable enough with the language to blow past its chaff to get to its wheat. If, after Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan or Devin Nunes or Jim Jordan or Mike Pence or (especially) Donald Trump overtly lied to the public the media called their lies ‘LIES’ as opposed to ‘other points of view’ — we would begin to strip these people of their power to misuse and abuse the language.
Our cultural discomfort with sex-related words flows straight from the repressive religious prigs — the Pilgrims — who came here less for religious freedom than because their religion was just plain wacky — and the Church of England wanted them gone. It seems to be a constant among humans: intense religious feelings and sexual repression are soul mates. They go together like peanut butter and jelly, yin and yang, republicans and corruption.
This twisted unease with sexuality expresses itself in perverse ways. I think I ‘got it’ about American culture when I was a kid. I don’t mean that certain words and images were ‘restricted’ — I mean that those restrictions were symptoms of a deeper, darker dysfunction. A vivid memory from my youth: I’m in high school — a huge Kurt Vonnegut reader. ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ is a seminal book in my development.
Back then, the media stone age, there were 3 networks: ABC, CBS, NBC. That’s it. On the night in question, CBS is running the last night of its multi-night mini-series ‘HELTER SKELTER’ — the story of the Mansion Family and the Tate-LaBianca murders. NBC counter-programmed the premier broadcast run of the film version of ‘Slaughterhouse Five’. Two ‘events’.
I didn’t care about ‘Helter Skelter’. I cared about ‘Slaughterhouse Five’. But I did flip back and forth a little — because the last part of ‘Helter Skelter’ is the most compelling: the murders themselves. Here’s where it got weird — and where we, as a culture, revealed ourselves.
On CBS, if one watched, one could experience a dramatized but nonetheless horrifying version of an actual event — murder, bloodshed, unspeakable cruelty.
On NBC, if one watched, one experienced a profound anti-war movie that spoke directly to the human condition. I am absolutely not making a judgement about one story good, one story bad. Both were excellent, valid stories that needed to be told. But one revealed the very worst of us and one wanted to speak to the best in us.
At the end of ‘Slaughterhouse Five’, Billy Pilgrim, the hero (he’s ‘unstuck in time’ — able to travel between various moments in his own life including his own birth and death) visits a time in his life when he’s a ‘prisoner’ in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore. There, he’s been put into a comfortable enclosure that he shares with a well known adult performer Montana Wildhack; the two are meant to breed — which they do.
While ‘Helter Skelter’ climaxes with chaos and mayhem, ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ climaxes with Billy Pilgrim imagining a terrible war crime — the Allied bombing of Dresden, German during WWII — being reversed: the firestorm goes out as the bombs that caused them fly back up into the Allied bombers that dropped them. The coda to this vision is Billy Pilgrim and Montana Wildhack in their enclosure — Montana having just given birth to their baby.
Montana puts the baby to her breast and feeds it. She breast-feeds her baby (a hopeful symbol — feeding the future). But, because the shot involved actress Valerie Perine’s naked breast, it had to be CUT.
So — on CBS: murder and mayhem in horrifying (but valid) detaili.
On NBC: Breastfeeding babies is verboten.
That, right there, sums us up. It sums up our culture. It sums up our attitude toward language. You can describe in all the detail you want on the American public airwaves ways to kill people.
Don’t you DARE however, describe all the ways you’d like to LOVE people.
What the f*ck is the word for ‘that’?