Baltimore Evening Sun (28 August 1911): 6.


The American language, so luscious, so lovely:

Them kind of politics may be old-fashioned, but they ain’t never lost no election yet. What sort of automobile was that I seen you goin’ down Charles street last Tuesday in?

Colonel Goethals’ recent prohibition of swearing in the Canal Zone engages the public gazettes, East, West, North, and South, and nine-tenths of them, of course, praise the Colonel in smug, affecting phrases. Swearing is so useless, so offensive, so immoral! Trust the newspapers to ladle out that sort of buncombe whenever the chance offers! They are always on the side of virtue—even when virtue is ridiculous. Joarnalists themselves, of course, practice profanity incessantly, as do all men who have to deal habitually with emergencies, but the public likes a moral bath, a shower of platitudes—and it gets what it wants.

As a matter of cold fact, swearing is no more immoral, no more sinful, no more a violation of the common decencies than tobacco chewing, cigarette smoking, Sabbath-breaking or any other of the customary butts of the chemically pure. The prohibition in the Third Commandment is not a prohibition of swearing, but of perjury—an obviously immoral act. And the other alleged attacks upon swearing in the two Testaments are really attacks upon perjury, blasphemy and rhetorical overstatement—the last a common vice among all Levantine peoples, but in no sense a crime. Our laws penalize swearing simply because lawmakers, like newspapers, are over-eager exegetes. For the same reason witchcraft was once a capital offense—not because the Old Testament actually prohibited it, but because certain ignorant interpreters thought that it did.

I here treat, of course, of swearing properly so-called—of that dignified and satisfying profanity which is neither blasphemous on the one hand nor obscene on the other. The civilized American white man is always careful of such distinctions. The Spaniard, the Portugee, the Italian, and other such Latins seem unable to swear without blasphemy, and among the Chinese, I am informed, swearing is hopelessly and revoltingly obscene. But the great root words, the heart and lungs, the mercury and quinine of Anglo-American swearing—to wit, the words “damn” and “hell”—have no hint or color of blasphemy in them, and are no more indecent than the names of the elements.

“The proper function of swearing,” said the Marquise of Crewe lately, in the course of a political speech at Tiverton, England, “is to sustain and comfort mankind in the minor ills of life. In the presence of anything like a great crisis it is superfluous and inadequate.” An accurate statement of the whole philosophy of swearing. It would be absurd for a man to say “damn” on having his leg cut off, or on being found guilty of murder, or on discovering a boa constrictor in the act of swallowing his infant—but in all the lesser emergencies of existence a few harsh, sforzando words discharge the lightnings of irritation, and hence relieve the mind. Hay fever, if swearing had never been invented, would be as fatal a malady as hydrophobia. As it is there is a “damn,” or at least a “darn” for every sneeze–a “damn” that is cheap, ever-ready and certainly ameliorative–and so the patient survives, to the joy of his loved ones and creditors.

It was Mark Twain, I believe, who first showed the direct connection between the poise and efficiency of the English and the satisfying sonoroneness of their national cuss-words. A Latin, thumping his thumb with a hammer, resorts at once to hair-raising blasphemy, and, as a result he gets no relief. His oaths are too complicated, too cacophonous, too earnest. Instead of soothing him, they disgust him. In consequence, the Latin is a nervous, irritable, emotional fellow, and unfit for work requiring a calm persistence, cool courage and a capacity for overcoming a multitude of small obstacles. The French, tackling the Panama Canal, failed miserably. If Colonel Goethals’ order were actually enforcable we Americans would fail too—but every sane man knows that it is essentially unenforcable, and every honest man is glad of it.

The English “damn” is the cornerstone of the British empire. It explains the great success of the English as colonizers, their infinite capacity for handling the lower races. The institution of slavery made swearing an important art in Colonial America, and it has been cherished and nurtured ever since. Hence our sky-scrapers, our transcontinental railroads, our great steel plants, our enormous commerce and prosperity. Engineers estimate that it takes 476,000 “damns” to lay a mile of track, and 250 a mile a day to operate trains over that track. How many steamboats would run if mates were forbidden to swear? How many newspapers would come out if the foremen of their composing rooms were denaturized and disendamned? How would wars be fought, how would orchestras rehearse, how would bricks be laid, how would policemen police, how would plumbers plumb, how would the great problems of statecraft be solved if–

But more of this anon. The subject of swearing is too vast for treatment in a single article. It has too many facets, its roots and tendrils sink too deep into psychology and sociology, ethics and anatomy, logic and philosophy. On a later day let us return to it, confining our study, in prudence, to some minor subdepartment, some constituent cell of it. For example, the psychic differences between English swearing and German swearing, the use of profanity by eminent men, or the scienitfic basis for the doctrine that swearing is offensive to ladies.

The Voice of the People, as it fills the air with music:

If them two School Board doctors don’t watch out, Preston’ll slip ’em the hook. Whatever become of them charges against Quick? Has anybody saw Alcaeus Hooper lately?