CAUTION TO READERS OF TENDER SENSIBILITIES:
VULGAR WORDS BELOW; YOU MAY WISH TO TURN BACK
A couple of days ago, the free paper b, also a product of the Baltimore Sun Media Group, came out with this headline on the cover:
The article inside listed the qualities that one would possess at various levels of proficiency in this category, along with a listing of models to emulate from history and contemporary society. It appears that I, despite a lifetime of effort, do not rank very high.
The publication of this headline occasioned considerable commentary among members of the Sun staff, some of whom complained to Anne Tallent, the editor of b, and to Tim Ryan, the publisher of the Baltimore Sun Media Group. Ms. Tallent responded that her readers are of a different sensibility than the readers of The Sun and are not inclined to find the word objectionable. She did not suggest that the members of The Sun’s staff are a bunch of dusty old fogies, but I fear that some of my colleagues may have drawn an inference.
She is right, I think, to identify a generational divide in sensitivity to opprobrious terms. As I have discovered in exchanges with my students, the popular verb sucks conveys contempt for low quality, without the connotation of a certain very personal service that tends to occur to older readers. Similarly, it often comes as news to them that the disparaging term scumbag originally referred to a condom, perhaps a used one — (What is the man teaching at Loyola?).
I asked my copy-editing class today about douchebag, with these results: They gasped and snickered; they know the origin of the term as well as its contemporary use; they would not have used the word in a headline. Not a significant sampling, I concede, and it’s possible that they were telling me what they imagined I wanted to hear. But still.
I don’t think that we have got quite so far beyond shock as Ms. Tallent thinks. The comedy of Lewis Black appears to require frequent repetition of one of the most popular Anglo-Saxon verbs, each occasion of which sends the audience into a mild frisson of delight. It doesn’t seem altogether unlikely that the display of such vulgarities appears to a lingering adolescent delight in bad words in public. That is one reason to refrain: not to appear childish.
But English is a language of extensive resources of abuse, and should b require further supplies, I suggest that the staff could turn to the ever-instructive Dictionary of Slang and Euphemism by Richard A. Spears. Here’s a sampling from the entry oaf:
ADDLE-HEAD, BEETLE-BRAIN, BLUNDERHEAD, BONEHEAD, BOOB, BUMPKIN, CALF-LOLLY, CHUMP, CLUCK, DIMBO, DING-DONG, DINK, DODDYPOLL, DOODLE, DORK, DORKMUNDER, DROMEDARY, DONGO, DROOB, DUNDERHEAD, DWEEB, GALLOOT, GAWBY, GAZOOK, GEEK, GOOFUS, GUFFIN, GUMSUCKER, HAMMERHEAD, HERKIMER JERKIMER, HORKIE, JABBERNOL, JACKASS, JORK, JOSKIN, JUGGIONS, KLOTZ, KLUCK, LACKWIT, LIRRIPOOP, LOBBUS, LUBBER, LUG, LUG-LOAF, LUMMOX, LUMPUS, MOKE, MOONCALF, MOPE, MUGGINS, MULLET-HEAD, MUTTONHEAD, NEDDY, NEWT, NIDDIPOL, NIMROD, NING-NONG, NINNYHAMMER, NOBBY, NODDY, NOLT, OOFUS, PASTE EATER, REUBEN, SAPSKULL, SAUSAGE, SCHLUB, SCHMENDRICK, SHATTERBRAIN, SIMKIN, SLUBBERDEGULLION, SOP, SOZZLE, SPLODGER, STOOPNAGEL, STOT, TWINK, TWIT, UMP-CHAY, UNDERWIT, WAFFLES, WAG-WIT, WARB, WET-SOCK, YACK, YAP, YOB, YOCK, YOLD, YO-YO, ZERK, ZIZ, ZONK, ZONKO and ZOUCH.