Vulgarity in the Observer

In the winter 1998 issue of The American Scholar Joseph Epstein, its editor for over twenty years, gives his view of why he is leaving the esteemed journal. The Phi Beta Kappa senate had voted to remove Epstein as editor and the decision was controversial. Whatever the reason, the issue revolved around the use of the word gay in an unsolicited essay. A strict grammarian and writer, Epstein asked the writer(s) of the essay to not use gay to define homosexuality. Too soon he was attacked for being homophobic and the battle began.

Words! Remember the old lie that our parents repeated to us when we complained about someone saying something mean to us: “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will never hurt us.” We now know better. Words matter and in the September 15, 2021 Charlotte Observer shows why.

In Sara Pequeno’s  article about Rep. Cawthorn attending a Johnston County School Board meeting, she describes many of the attendees: “It was hard to tell who was a concerned parent with children in the school system, who was a p***** off neighbor,….”

I only can suppose at what J. Epstein would comment about Ms. Pequeno’s choice of phrase to describe attendees at the school board meeting, but I think that she ruined an otherwise fine article when she descended to the level of the vulgar. She, in a sense, became as vulgar as young Cawthorn when she wrote as she did. Her decent to the common language drew attention away from him and his supporters and placed the spotlight on her in her choice of words. Yes, I am aware that some folks think that some words and phrases are of value because they express an emotion. I agree, but there is a place and time for them. A newspaper op-ed is neither.

In his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell argues against the type of writing that the Nazis used in World War II. In his essay he offers his argument for clear (honest) writing and he offers guidance to that end. The essay shows Orwell’s great concern with truth and language and how deliberately misleading language is used to conceal disagreeable political facts. His rules are:

1.Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. 2.Never use a long word where a short one will do. 3.If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. 4.Never use the passive where you can use the active. 5.Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. 6.Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

In parsing the quoted phrase from Ms.Pequeno’s article, it is obvious where in her op-ed she ignores Orwell’s suggestions. She could have followed number 3 and instead of the vulgar phrase in question, she could have used any number of fine, Anglo-Saxon words. I suggest angry, but our great language offers many synonyms such as mad, irate, or indignant. Also, by following number 3 she would have saved a word, making her essay more active. It is obvious that she ignored number 6 because the phrase she used is barbaric.

My objection is not to the phrase describing the state of anger of some of the attendees. It is a useful phrase in certain situations, such as when I am speaking to a friend in a private conversation, such as, “The Observer printed an article that used vulgar language, and that ****** me off.” But not in a newspaper or public meeting or other such situations. The editors of the Observer should have followed Epstein and asked the writer to change the wording. That is their responsibility to their readers and a lesson they can teach their writers.

“Vulgarity is the effort of a weak mind to forcefully express itself” is an adage of which  I remind the editors and writer. While I do not think Ms. Pequeno has a weak mind, I suggest that she resorted to the convenient in describing some of the crowd. By taking the easy way, she ruined an otherwise fine article.

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