One noon in the early '60s my husband and I stopped for lunch at a restaurant in a small New Jersey town. Next to our table sat a large group of construction workers. They were having a good time joking and laughing while they ate. Although the language they were using was not "foul," it was certainly coarse and profane. However, when I walked into the room one of the men said to the others, "We'd better watch our language. There's a lady present." And watch their language they did. That was not an unusual occurrence at that time. It was the last time it happened to me, and I wonder how often it happens today. Around that same time I attended a very posh dinner in the gold ballroom of the Hotel DuPont in Wilmington, Del. At the next table sat a group of elegantly dressed ladies and distinguished looking men. These college-educated people were sprinkling their conversation with four-letter street words deliberately doing so to be daring, avant garde or whatever. I remember the feeling of revulsion that swept over me _ and shame, too, as I compared them to those men in New Jersey. Now, 30 years later, I know some educated, distinguished people who can't say two consecutive sentences without using street language. The cleverness has worn off and the grossness has set in.
A few years ago, although we didn't expect everyone's values to be the same, there was a sort of general agreement about what kind of language was to be used in public. Today anything goes.
I personally resent the "hells" and "damns" that are being used more and more on TV, even in children's programs. In most cases they add absolutely nothing to the plot, and seem to be dragged into the dialogue by the hair for whatever purpose it's hard to imagine. The language of movies and best-sellers today is beyond belief. I remember watching movies in Venezuela a few years ago and being embarrassed for my country. The Spanish subtitles fortunately did not translate the words but made acceptable substitutions. However, there were many young people who were studying English in the audience and they were making judgments about our society for good or bad.
It isn't that I have never heard the words, nor do I find them shocking. They were written on little pieces of paper and passed from one student to the other when I was in the fifth grade. I saw them written on walls and on the sidewalk when I was 7 years old. Children were expelled for saying them on the playground and we had our mouths washed out with soap at home if we were foolish enough to repeat them. We all knew the words, but our teachers did not use them and our parents did not talk that way. We knew they were used in a certain level of society, a level to which none of us aspired to sink.
Recently I read a news report in the St. Petersburg Times about a young lad who had made a gift to Gen. Schwarzkopf. What a wholesome article _ and then the boy was quoted. His remark which praised the general was couched in vulgar language and was a slur on older people _ possibly his neighbors. My grandchildren tell me that he was only speaking the language of most 12-year-olds in our schools. They add that some of the teachers commonly use such expressions. I wonder if I was the only person put off by the boy's remark which I'm sure was meant to be one of appreciation.
We have a beautiful language. There are adjectives to describe every possible experience. There are adverbs that are colorful and graphic. There are nouns and verbs, delightful and varied. Why is it necessary for educated and talented writers and entertainers to use gutter talk? Why must our children be led to believe that speech like that is the "norm"? In my opinion we are all being invaded by the language of the street.
Miriam Snow Priebe is a resident of Gulfport and a former schoolteacher.