Ralphie (Peter Billingsly) receives the appropriate punishment (of the 1940s) for saying a bad word in 'A Christmas Story' (1983). 'The queen-mother of dirty words,' that is.

For, Friday, April 24, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: Movie theaters are suffering during the worldwide pandemic but streaming services are seeing a real boon as people confined to their homes are turning to computers and TV for nightly entertainment. As a result you may have noticed that new shows and movies made exclusively for these uncountable sites are often replete with R-rated language — even when it doesn’t seem like a logical fit for certain shows. Why? Because they can. So the thinking goes that since HBO and Showtime are successful and every one of their shows has cussing galore, it must be necessary. Right. Here’s one of many rants I came up with on the subject over my 40 years of writing about movies for the Deseret News. This one was published Sept. 5, 2014.

There’s a new school of thought being proposed that profanity cannot be learned from movies or TV or video games or YouTube or other forms of popular culture. To which I say, hogwash.

For the young and uninformed, “hogwash” was one of the many euphemisms used back in the olden days in place of cuss words.

But these days it seems nothing is used in place of cuss words. Cuss words are becoming more and more the accepted norm. Especially in entertaiment.

No one seems to care anymore that coarse language indicates, at best, a limited vocabulary, or, at worst, a miniature mind. Especially when certain words, instead of creeping into conversation, dominate and overwhelm. (Martin Scorsese, are you listening?)

It’s one thing to utter a single exclamatory profanity under great duress but it’s quite another to use such language frequently or constantly as part of one’s casual speech.

We all get angry or find ourselves unexpectedly in pain, but our verbal reactions mark the measure of our maturity.

Yes, children can learn “bad words” at home or from friends, but it’s also not hard — when a string of profanities or vulgar terms are flowing freely from a theater or TV or computer screen — to also find them lodged in your mind, ready to pounce at the slightest provocation.

I grew up in a household where profanity was rare but not non-existent. My father worked in a lumberyard for many years and his co-workers swore constantly. I don’t know how much cussing he did in that environment but I do know that he didn’t bring it home. And on those infrequent occasions when he slipped in front of us — or if, in a truly rare moment, my mother slipped — it hung in the house like a shock wave.


Eddie Murphy used the F-word as liberally as his handgun in 'Beverly Hills Cop' (1984).

At age 18, while still living at home, I began working on an aircraft assembly line, where I was surrounded by a fairly consistent flow of colorful language, some of which I’d never heard before. But I knew better than to even think about bringing it home.

A year or so later, however, I found myself in the Army, and during the first three months of training it seemed that every other utterance was the f-word, and I began to pick it up. After several weeks of this, a friend and I were discussing it.

He said, “I’m afraid I’ll go home on a weekend pass and ask my mother to pass the (expletive) potatoes!” I laughed knowingly and said I had the same fear. So we made a pact to stop, then and there. How were we going do it? Self-control, something that seems to be less popular than it once was.

A decade later, when I was reviewing movies, it became apparent that the f-word was taking hold as the most repeated profanity in the screenwriters’ playbook. R-rated comedies, horror movies and thrillers began to use it in every other sentence, as a noun, a verb, an adverb, an adjective.

Were Bruce Willis and Eddie Murphy being paid by the number of f-words uttered? No wonder they quickly became multi-millionaires.

Using that expletive has now become so common to so much dialogue in so many movies that it’s reached the other side of ridiculous. If any other word were used as much, no filmmaker would allow it. 

Can you imagine the backlash if “chocolate” were used the same way by Det. John McClane in the next “Die Hard” sequel? It would quickly be called out as redundant and tiresome, and bring into question the character’s intelligence. Or the screenwriter’s.

Sometimes, back in the days when I was seeing all these movies one after another, if something frustrating occurred I could feel that word climbing into my throat as if it strongly desired to be expressed.


Eddie Murphy's only rival for multiple creative uses of the F-word in the 1980s was Bruce Willis, starting with 'Die Hard' (1988).

Whoever says hearing words in entertainment cannot prompt audience members to repeat those words is naïve.

After all, if a 30-second commercial on TV can get you to go out and change your Internet provider, how can it be argued that two hours of foul language on a big screen, in stereo sound, with no distractions, cannot prompt you to start using such words yourself?

In my case, I suppressed the temptation and instead came up with substitutes. Like my dad, I wasn’t going to bring those words home to my young, impressionable children.

So “hogwash” became the norm in our house, along with such other old-fashioned substitutes as “fiddlesticks,” “Jiminy Crickets,” “balderdash,” “consarn,” “dadgummit,” “thunderation,” “horse-hockey,” “bullfeathers,” “crimeny” … and, of course, the ever popular “heck” and “darn.”

Sometimes I tried to be more creative, using food substitutes: “Snickerdoodles,” “Cheese Whiz,” “Smucker’s,” “Cracker Jacks” and, my favorite, “Screaming Yellow Zonkers.”

And occasionally I would try out literary references, favoring names from Charles Dickens novels, often preceded by “Oh” or “Great”: “Fezziwig,” “Nicholas Nickleby, “Sweedlepipe,” “Havisham,” “Sowerberry,” “Pumblechook,” “Honeythunder,” “Uriah Heep.”

Or I might be heard to bellow, “Godfrey Daniels,” which was uttered by W.C. Fields in one of his films. I’m also partial to muttering the names of Fields’ movie-character names: “Augustus Winterbottom,” “Ambrose Wolfinger,” “Cuthbert J. Twillie.”

OK, now it’s gotten silly, as one of the Monty Python crew used to say. But you get the idea.

This kind of swear-substituting may not signal a superior mind, but at least it helped the air in our home to seem a bit cleaner.