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The Sacred And The Profane The obscenities that used to be strictly taboo on TV and in print don't mean squat these days

When Charles Rocket let slip an obscenity on Saturday Night Live
18 years ago, he was summarily fired. But when
ready-for-prime-time-player Al Michaels, thinking he was in a
commercial break, uttered a four-letter profanity on the Dec. 28
episode of Monday Night Football, he was not made to fall on his
sword or, more accurately, to fall on his s-word.

This owes something to the fact that profanity has become a
sonic Starbucks, so common a part of the cultural landscape that
we hardly notice it anymore. Michaels's own MNF boothmate Boomer
Esiason published a novel called Toss last November in which the
f-word appears nine times--and that's just on page 114.

To be fair, Boomer's roman a clef is set largely in a locker
room, and people in locker rooms tend to talk as if they're in a
locker room. So sports journalists have long agonized over how
to accurately quote athletes and coaches whose language would
drop the jaw of the saltiest sea captain. Taped TV has the
bleep, though we can still read lips. Radio has the seven-second
delay. In print President Nixon's potty mouth necessitated the
bracketed phrase expletive deleted. But comic strips have
perfected this artful dodge, giving us the timeless epithet
%#&@! For my money, that is the best way to handle profanity in
print, leaving most of it to the imagination. One doesn't need
to have everything spelled out--indeed, that's why nudist
colonies are so unpopular. (That, and the people.)

Other options are less satisfactory. It is the practice of many
newspapers to "clean up" quotes, so an outside linebacker with
prison tattoos might say in your morning sports section, "That's
baloney, total bullchips, and the next time we play that faker,
I will personally kick his fanny." Such euphemizing helps
explain why former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda is
thought to be a grandfatherly raconteur, when in fact his
language would make Buddy Hackett blush. A typical Bob Knight
postgame press briefing could not be telecast on HBO, not even
as part of Def Comedy Jam.

We would elaborate, but profanity is seldom allowed to coarsen
the pages of this magazine. Granted, many stories do contain
curious constructions like "s---" and "a------," but that's only
to allow you, the reader, to play a fun new guessing game:
Obscene Hangman.

An overreliance on profanity is said to be the mark of a small
vocabulary. But surely there is value in an occasional
Tourette's-caliber cussing jag. Mark Twain recognized as much,
saying, "In certain trying circumstances, urgent circumstances,
desperate circumstances, profanity furnishes a relief denied
even to prayer." Don't believe him? Then hit yourself on the
thumb with a hammer.

Nobody knew the therapeutic value of a curse word better than
former catcher and Baltimore Orioles announcer Clay Dalrymple, a
most colorful colorman, who once misidentified himself on the
air as Clay Dairymaple. The O's were getting shelled during a
game in the early 1980s, to the broadcaster's increasing
agitation, when manager Earl Weaver belatedly went to the
bullpen. Exasperated, Dalrymple told television viewers
throughout greater Baltimore precisely what each of them was
already thinking.

"They're going to bring in Tippy Martinez," said Dalrymple, "to
try to put an end to this bulls---."

Only he didn't use the dashes. He said the whole cathartic word.
That's right: He said, "%#&@!"

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO [Drawing of man swearing and punching locker]