ROME -- It started like a scene from an E.M. Forster novel. In a quiet Tuscan retreat, a handsome, well-dressed young man played piano in an exquisitely arranged drawing room. What he lacked in artistry, he made up for with gusto, and soon enough a weary British father asked him to curtail his musical efforts for the evening as there was a small child sleeping upstairs. The young man rose, shrugged his elegant shoulders and drawled in lightly Spanish-flavored English, "I don't f**king see why I f**king should, I f**king paid for this place same as you f**king did."
Saucer-eyed, the father pressed his request, but was met with further torrents of profanity until he retreated into the manager's office.
A few days later, in a coffee shop three blocks from St. Peter's, a Roman gentleman was attempting to impress a young woman with his linguistic ability and political savoir-faire. "These politicians are all full of s**t." he proclaimed airily, waving manicured hands, "I say f**k them all."
A group of fresh faced Roman school kids, perched outside the venerable remains of the Coliseum, eagerly flaunted their English to a group of elderly American tourists, calling out cheerily: "What's your name?" "Where are you from?" "F**k you!"
The same Europeans who heap contempt on American politics, cuisine and fashion apparently can't seem to get enough of our arsenal of expletives.
The ease with which English profanity currently falls from the lips of non-English speaking Europeans indicates that many denizens of the Old World think that is how we speak in the wilds of the New. The Greeks once coined the term "barbarian" to mimic the babbling sound of strangers' language; today it is the Anglophones who appear as barely civilized grunters.
Where would they get the idea that Americans routinely punctuate their speech with foul language? After all, one rarely hears profanity in an American diner or department store, nor does it appear in our newspapers. Perhaps part of the cause can be found in the tinny pop music that echoes from every iPod and the repartee issuing from the lips of our golden, glamorous film stars. Among "artists," profanity has become as cool in the 21st century as smoking was in the days of Bogey, Bacall and Billie Holiday.
In 1939, Rhett Butler shocked cinemagoers by tamely declaring, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." One can only imagine what "Gone with the Wind" viewers would have made of five minutes of Quentin Tarantino dialogue?
It strains the imagination to picture Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn in their exquisite costumes and coiffures contorting their polished features and spewing out curses. Yet Charlize Theron and Angelina Jolie string a few "ands" and "thes" among four letter words, and voila, Oscar! Power and conviction in a performance seem strangely proportionate to the use of profanity.
Our legions of college-age students studying abroad in Europe with its lax drinking laws have fostered this new Anglo-invasion, as has our anonymous Internet chatter, which frequently takes coarse language as a new form of philosophical exposition.
It seems sad that a language that saw creative invectives brought to a high art (think of Shakespeare's "paunchy onion-eyed lout") has sunk so low. Even Herman Melville's rough whalers sailing alone in untamed waters never manage more than a "poor pegging lubber." Now George Carlin's "seven words you can't say on television" seem to be the staple of song lyrics and the ceiling of cinematic artistic expression.
Some claim that the F-word has been rendered innocuous by common usage particularly in music and cinema. How many movies have featured an angelic child parting rosebud lips to emit the F-bomb to the delight and amazement of elders? How many parents and children sing along to a catchy tune, awkwardly humming through the expletives they wouldn't use themselves? Pop culture suggests fluency in profanity has become the modern rite of passage into adulthood.
Despite these attempts to render profanity palatable, they serve only to underscore our inability to communicate. Expletives fill empty places in speech, when one is at a loss of something to say. In the absence of serious argumentative force, a well-placed profanity seems to fill the logic gap. Abusive expletives can deflect others' attacks or bolster a flailing rebuttal the way Winston Churchill would raise his voice when he thought his points were particularly weak. Far from a contemporary display of sophistication, it is a retreat from engagement, looking to nonplus the interlocutor without ever engaging the argument.
The fact is most American's don't speak this way. We remain a people of polite phrasing; "have a nice day" and "I beg your pardon," are more common to our everyday speech than profanity. The average American would have as much difficulty sparring in the expletive arena as he would in a street fight.
Consequently those of more refined speech find themselves drowned out by the cussing brigade, who often have less to say but garner much attention saying it.
The poster child for the new Anglophone approach of substituting invective for argument is singer Lily Allen, who recently released a little ditty slamming those who oppose gay marriage. In her defense of love of all sorts, she warbles in her childlike voice, "F**k you, f**k you very very much, 'cause we hate what you do and we hate your whole crew, so please don't stay in touch."
As Allen's song plays unedited in my Roman coffee shop, and waiters, children and little old ladies chime in with the catchy words of the refrain, one wonders how the language that gave the world the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein, the witty repartee of Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart, and the sparkling polemics of Mary McCarthy and William F. Buckley has been reduced to exporting profanity, the abandonment of intellect for insult.