Food For Thought

Vulgarity & Vocabulary 

by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D.,
Contributing Columnist
Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John E. Bonfadini
John E. Bonfadini


The use of vulgar language has become, it seems, an almost natural and accepted part of conversation. Four-letter words creep into many day-to-day discussions. Even high government officials seem perfectly comfortable using these words at various times.

As a society, we should examine what has changed in our culture that now seems to allow the use of words that once offended the most hardened individuals. Jack Paar, the memorable host of The Tonight Show in the late 1950s, walked off the stage because NBC censored a joke about a water closet, a British euphemism for a toilet. Boy, have times changed. Sesame Street would use jokes of that nature today.

Television, movies and most books contain significant use of vulgar words. Omitting these expressions from the official Webster’s dictionary doesn’t deter their use. Society has its own dictionary of everyday conversation and it contains a lot of offensive expressions. The continued use of vulgarity in the media adds a dimension of acceptability. Count the number of vulgar words in the next movie you see; then explain how you’re going to tell your kids not to use these words.

I’ve watched some famous PGA golfers miss their putts or hit bad shots, and the movement of their lips tells me they know that famous four-letter word. The sound might be turned off, but we all know what was said. Watch the sidelines of any football game and read the lips of the great coaches after a bad play. I guess the words used are part of the character-building process of athletics. When I turned on this computer, my Internet provider was highlighting a story about a University of Pittsburgh player who had just used an expletive in the after-game interview. He apologized for its use and so did the station. Hard to criticize the kid for using the language just because the microphone was on, and not criticize the coaches who are freely using the same words after every bad play or call. NASCAR racing is trying to maintain its clean image by fining drivers who have used vulgar language in after-race interviews, but we all know it’s just as much a part of racing as changing tires.

An article in Florida’s St. Petersburg Times sports section told of a golfer from a local high school who was disqualified for using improper language during the regional golf tournament. His score was replaced by another golfer’s score, which made his team ineligible for the state finals. Ironically, the offending golfer gets to continue as an individual to the state finals. I’m a former high school coach of several sports, including golf, and must admit to using improper words from time to time. I find in certain environments, it seems so easy for these four-letter words to creep into the conversation. I guess no one is offended so they go unnoticed. My control mechanism is my wife, who frequently reminds me of my language usage as well as other weaknesses like my driving skills. Maybe that’s what we all need — a little more awareness of what we are saying, and to be reminded it offends many people.

I like to tell the story of a teacher who walks into the room and finds that someone has written an expletive “****” on the board. The teacher asks, “Who wrote that on the blackboard?” No one answers. She asks a second time without a response. She then tells the children to put their heads down on the desk while hiding their faces in their hands and announces that the person who wrote the word should go to the board and erase it. The students follow her request and within a short time the sound of little feet can be heard going to the blackboard and returning to a desk. The teacher now instructs the students to view the blackboard expecting to find a clean slate. To her surprise is written, expletive “****,” expletive “****,” “the phantom strikes again.” Erasing the use of vulgar language from the mind is not going to be an easy task, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.


Every vulgar word has an acceptable word to explain the same thought or action. In most cases the writer or speaker has the choice of using several words in delivering a message. Vocabulary is often a function of style. The greater the vocabulary, the more versatility the writer/speaker has to explain thoughts. On the table next to me is this (big, large, monstrous, heavy, unabridged) dictionary. Selecting the proper adjective to describe the dictionary is determined by the audience and the writer. I know there are certain rules to follow, but if everyone followed the rules, reading and writing would be boring. Some variety is good. It also gives me an excuse for any mistakes I make in these articles. One rule I do follow is to not use too many of the words found on the SAT examination. The only time most people hear the majority of those words is during the exam. Educators spend a lot of time teaching words we never use and I want to know... why? Why are we wasting our time or why aren’t students using these words?

I just went to the Internet Web site to find a list of study words that might appear on a standardized test. Five-thousand words are listed for my review. I must admit there were many I did not know. One of the words listed was gynecocracy. The definition given is “female supremacy.” A much simpler word for female supremacy is wife. (Don’t write me — it’s only a weak attempt at male supremacy.) The site also states, “Fair or not, people judge you and your ideas by the words you use.” Will using more of those big words make my readers think I’m more erudite?

A secondary consideration is that using too many big words from the list might cause you to quit reading this column. I would then have to abnegate my writer’s pen. An expanded vocabulary is a worthy goal, but we must always consider the law of diminishing returns. I had a social studies teacher in the 8th grade by the name of Jules Bia. He made an attempt to use every word in his expanded vocabulary. I don’t remember much about the subject matter of that history class, but he impressed me enough to remember his name more than 50 years later.

Scoring in life is like scoring in baseball: you get the same reward for hitting the ball one foot over the fence as you do for hitting it over the outfield bleachers. The greater distance adds more to the personal satisfaction of the player and fans. Removing vulgarity and replacing it with an expanded vocabulary will give us more satisfaction, even if it isn’t required for a higher score.

What’s Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to: [email protected], or send written responses to the editor.  Mail will be forwarded to the author.




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