Ralphie Parker washing his mouth out with soap
Talk about coincidence, I was thinking just the other day how popular song lyrics have changed over the years – and not for the better, I fear – when I stumbled into an odd kind of research online that supported my suspicion and set me to thinking about language in general.

The research. Believe it or not, somebody has gone to the trouble – brace yourself – to count the words that have shown up most often in popular songs in every decade since the 1890s! And if you thought song lyrics were getting cleaner and classier, move to the rear of the line. Yes, the “f” word was one of the five most common words appearing in the current decade’s popular music. “Hell” was another.

Why am I not surprised? I saw a novel recently that would have been a short story if the author had left out the “f” word. And today’s comedians (I use the word loosely) seem unable to set up or deliver a punch line without a plentiful use of the “f” word. Don’t they know they could stand out from the crowd just by following the G-rated example of such great comedians as Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and Jerry Seinfeld?

Just as an experiment, try this: In the history of American comedy, one of the funniest lines ever delivered on TV was a simple two-word sentence by Jack Benny, who was a notorious skinflint (and master of comedic timing). In the skit, he was held up at gunpoint by a robber who had demanded, “Your money or your life” and, after a moment, repeated the demand. Said Benny at length: “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.” America exploded in laughter!

Now go ahead (though not out loud in public): Throw a few “f” words into that fourteen words of famous dialogue and watch it wilt before your eyes (or fizzle in your ears).

When it comes to using foul language, believe me less is more. Much more. Not because one is Pecksniffian, but because one cares about language, which thrives on economy to make a point, not on gratuitous helpmates, especially foul adjectives. You couldn’t improve on this funny line by adding anything at all: “’Shut up!’ he explained.”

Still not convinced? Then consider these famous lines from movies, each so well-crafted (and well delivered) that it has become engrained in our collective consciousness. (I’ll list at the bottom the movies they came from). Notice how many of the words are one-syllable, how few adjectives are employed – and how effective when employed, and how dramatic understatement can be:

  • “Go ahead, make my day.”
  • “Houston, we have a problem.”
  • “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
  • “Badges? We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”
  • “I’ll have what she’s having.”
  • “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
  • “You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”
  • “Show me the money.”
  • “I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
  • “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
  • “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

That last one, spoken by Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in the 1939 American Civil War epic Gone with the Wind, was selected by the American Film Institute as the most memorable American movie quotation of all time. “Damn” in this case, by the way, is a noun, not an adjective.

Moral of this story: Current usage might have gone to hell in a handcart, but simple, straightforward, unadorned language is still the best route to being understood.

(The movies, in order: Sudden Impact, Apollo 13, Cool Hand Luke, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, When Harry Met Sally, Jaws, On the Waterfront, Jerry Maguire, The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, Gone With the Wind.)

Image: Ralphie Parker (aka: Peter Billingsley) washing his mouth out with soap from a production still from the MGM movie “Christmas Story” (fair use)
Robert Lamb

Robert Lamb

I grew up in Augusta, Ga., where I attended Boys' Catholic High. After service in the Navy, I attended the University of Georgia, majoring in English, and then began a (wholly unexpected) journalism career on the old Augusta Herald, an evening paper, and ended years later in Atlanta at The (great) Atlanta Constitution, which I left in late 1982 to write The Great American Novel. That goal has proved remarkably elusive, but my first attempt (Striking Out, in 1991) was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award. My second novel, Atlanta Blues, spent a few minutes on the best-seller list in (at least) Columbia, S.C., and was described in one newspaper’s year-end roundup as “one of the three best novels of 2004 by a Southern writer.” My third novel won no honors but at least didn’t get me hanged; titled A Majority of One, it is about a clash between religion and the Constitution over book-banning in the high school of a Georgia town. For my next novel, And Tell Tchaikovsky the News, I returned to an Atlanta setting for a story about the redemptive powers of, in this case anyhow, “that good rock ’n’ roll.” I've also published a collection of short stories and poems: Six of One, Half Dozen of Another. One of its stories, “R.I.P.,” was a winner in the S.C. Fiction Project in 2009. Before retirement, I taught creative writing and American literature at the University of South Carolina and its Honors College, and feature writing in its School of Journalism. I maintain a now-and-then blog at boblamb.wordpress.comand I walk my dog on the beach a lot at Pawleys Island, S.C.