BERKELEY, CALIF. — When the new HBO series "Deadwood" premiered, I was delightfully surprised to hear a TV critic on National Public Radio make a point of knocking its wildly excessive use of obscenities - even before he got around to offering the show a positive review. At last, I thought, a display of good critical judgment.
Don't mistake me. I write in defense of the expletive. Every language needs its dirty words. They are the cayenne pepper of speech, available to communicate uncontrollable fury, irreverence, or vulgar insolence. But the undeleted F-expletive is the most obvious literary vice of our day.
I'm sure social authenticity would be the justification offered by filmmakers for drowning their audience in dirty words. Martin Scorsese, whose 1990 "Goodfellas" raised expletive usage to new levels, would no doubt insist that movies about gangsters or prizefighters simply wouldn't sound real without salty language. Poor excuse. There is a name for work that indulges in mind-numbing and predictable repetition, whether the words are clean or dirty. We call it "bad writing."
Good writing sparkles, even when it gives voice to characters who are grossly inarticulate. There is a well-developed body of work that does a brilliant job of injecting wit into degraded English. The warriors who fill Shakespeare's history plays were doubtlessly as foul-mouthed as soldiers and gangsters in our time, but the bard didn't need to wallow in obscenity to make them come alive. And think of Charles Dickens, Ring Lardner, or even David Mamet - before he, too, joined the smut parade.
Today it doesn't matter who's talking: Everybody sounds like Tony Soprano. Strenuous cursing has become standard dialogue in everything except costume drama - until, that is, "Deadwood." "Bridget Jones's Diary" was about an articulate young woman working in the London publishing world. Even so, she and all her upscale friends cussed like sailors. Woody Allen's "Deconstructing Harry" was a middle-class comedy of manners that seemed intent on replacing every comma, question mark, and exclamation point in the script with an obscenity.
I grew up in that quaint era when the moral authorities of America cringed to hear Clark Gable utter the word "damn." Raw language - intruding once or twice, used in the right way by the right character - once had a liberating and electrifying effect.
I believe Robert Altman was first to use the F-word on the screen - just once - in "M*A*S*H" in 1970. I remember flinching. The word packed the power reserved for nasty words. The basis of that power was scarcity, the sense of a boundary being overstepped. But the floodgates opened after "M*A*S*H." Before the decade was out, Michael Cimino, in "The Deer Hunter," was timing dialogue to make sure there was a dirty word every six seconds.
Of course, the generation that came out of the Free Speech Movement and the 1960s has grown up to season its speech with casual profanity. Its political opponents once deplored such incivility, but, if we can judge by Richard Nixon's White House tapes, they were themselves no less foul-mouthed, if only behind closed doors. Exposing such hypocrisy was an issue of the day.
But whatever political significance dirty words had, they have long since subsided into the junior high vernacular of the day. You expect them, you see them coming by the dozen, they roll over you in movies, on cable TV, in hip-hop and rock music, leaving you limp with boredom. They are ... nothing special. They have become "expletives" in the worst sense: meaningless verbalisms. They have the same status as "you know."
Am I being priggish? Perhaps, but no more so than Holden Caulfield, still something of a hero for the post-World War II generations. Remember how Holden throws a minor fit toward the end of "The Catcher in the Rye" when he sees the F-word all around him? It becomes an emblem of all he finds debased in his society. He not only wants to erase the word wherever he sees it, he'd like to kill the "dirty kids" who scrawl it on the walls. There was gallantry to Holden's concern. He worried that "little kids would see it and how they'd wonder what the hell it meant."
Is there any chance we might prevail upon the Writers Guild to establish a quota: three uses of each major expletive per movie? Or perhaps a moratorium: no dirty words for the next five years? Or better still, the Modern Language Association might declare that Anglo-Saxon smut has lost its official status as obscenity. We might then draw up a new list of dirty words, imploring writers to preserve linguistic pungency by using them sparingly.
Where would we find the words? Surely the Hottentots and the Inuit have some good dirty words. Or we might appoint a committee of literary notables to create a collection of neologisms to be used only for especially powerful effects. Words like drosh, hurp, shroik, blevving, spludge-nukker and blork - meaning ... (expletives deleted).
As for writers who refuse to play along, well, the committee might send them a letter putting them on notice: "No more shroiking awards for you."
• Theodore Roszak is professor emeritus of history at California State University-Hayward. His most recent book is 'The Devil and Daniel Silverman.' ©The Los Angeles Times.