New York: Bad Words, Overused, Can Lose Their Sting

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri May 16 13:36:33 UTC 2008

The New York Times

May 16, 2008
Bad Words, Overused, Can Lose Their Sting

The most surprising thing about Sue Simmons's unbleeped blooper the
other night is that anyone in this city even noticed. You may have
read about her unfortunate slip. Ms. Simmons, a news anchor on
WNBC-TV, tried to get the attention of her longtime partner, Chuck
Scarborough, by asking him, "What are you doing?" Only she did not
realize that they were live on the air. And she didn't quite say "What
are you doing?" She inserted two words between "what" and "are." One
of those words was "the." Sorry to be coy about the other one, but it
is not allowed to be printed here. Rules are rules. If you can't
figure out what it is, you have not been in New York very long — like
less than four minutes. Despite a certain amount of twitter over this
incident, it seems that both the republic and Ms. Simmons will
survive. "She'll continue to be on the air," said a WNBC spokeswoman,
Susan Kiel.

The reality is that this vulgar word has been tossed about with such
abandon in public for so many years that New Yorkers tend to tune it
out. Its endless, and mindless, repetition left them numb long ago. By
now, the word is no longer shocking, just tedious. Through frequent
use, "a word like this begins to be less of a curse word," said
Ricardo Otheguy, a sociolinguist at the City University of New York
Graduate Center. "The more you use it, the less dirty it is." Then,
too, he said, the city has so many people for whom English is a second
language. The word may sound softer to them than it is. "Swearing in
your own language feels like a really dirty thing to do," Professor
Otheguy said. "Swearing in somebody else's language seems somehow less

Add to that the fact that boundaries between public space and private
are being erased. Cellphones contribute mightily to that, said another
sociolinguist, John V. Singler of New York University. "The range of
places where it's O.K. to use that word has grown enormously,"
Professor Singler said. By now, he said, "the real taboo words — and
even these depend on who's saying them — have to do much more with
race." You routinely hear Wall Street suits use the word at high
decibels in the subway. Police officers bounce it casually among one
another, no matter who else is around to hear. Teenagers use it all
the time. Some people walk around with the word screaming from their
T-shirts — an insight, perhaps, into their capacity for

Vice President Dick Cheney invoked the word on the Senate floor,
suggesting to Senator Patrick Leahy that he commit an impossible
sexual act. Eliot Spitzer, the swaggering former governor, tried to be
macho by using it to emphasize his self-image as a "steamroller."
Rarely do any of these people display a glimmer of the creativity
shown by a fellow soldier in my Army days. The jeep he was driving
broke down. Looking under the hood, he needed only four words to
pronounce the vehicle beyond repair. The first was "the," followed by
the Simmons-Cheney-Spitzer word in its adjectival, noun and verb forms
— in that order. It bordered on poetry. There was nothing poetic this
week in the repeated use of the word after the rapper Remy Ma was
sentenced in Manhattan to eight years in prison for shooting a woman.
Remy Ma's boyfriend, a fellow performer with the nom de rap of
Papoose, was outraged. Maybe he did not fully grasp that it is
generally considered unacceptable to shoot people.

When told by court officers to vamoose, Papoose lost control. All
along the courthouse corridors, he repeated that tiresome word. T. S.
Eliot he wasn't.
Some New Yorkers, though, are still capable of cringing. A shouting
match between two taxi drivers — neither a native English speaker but
both graced with a solid command of the familiar word — cost one of
them dearly. As reported this week in The New York Post, he was deemed
the aggressor, and fined $1,000 and suspended for 30 days by Matthew
W. Daus, chairman of the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Sure, driving
a cab is stressful, Mr. Daus said, but decorum must be maintained,
especially in a service industry that caters to tourists from places
where that word may not be batted around casually. "Drivers are often
the first and last face that visitors to our city see," he said.

Official censure does only so much, though. No power could have
prevented a loud argument some years ago between two street guys.
Finally, one of them shouted at the other, "I've only got two words to
say to you." Actually, he then said four words. Two of them were
sandwiched between "shut" and "up." You can easily guess what they
were. The point is that this man truly thought he was using only two
words. That's a New Yorker.

E-mail: haberman at

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