fb-pixelAn expert in the craft examines Oval Office profanities - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

An expert in the craft examines Oval Office profanities

Timothy Jay, an emeritus professor at the Mass. College of Liberal Arts, in North Adams.Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

NORTH ADAMS — Now that we know that the discourse in Donald Trump’s White House is about as vile and vulgar as the banter in a rundown barroom just before last call, I figured it was time to talk dirty.

This column is going to lead the league in asterisks and dashes — those typographical stand-ins for the words you can’t use in a family newspaper, words that used to compel mothers everywhere to run for a bar of soap to wash out the mouths of their profane kids.

Those are the words that have been at the center of Tim Jay’s professional universe for more than40 years. If you think the word s---hole is going to accelerate his metabolism, you haven’t been in his classroom here at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, or read the half-dozen books he’s written about foul mouths and their creative concoctions of polysyllabic curses.

He knows the most popular swear word used by men. It’s the F-word. He knows the most popular curse used by women rhymes with witch. His particular favorite also ends in hole but starts with an A.


And he knows this: The context in which these dirty words are used tells as much, or more, about those who use them, than the words themselves.

That’s why Trump’s use of s---hole has landed with such tectonic force. His use of it as a dismissive descriptive of African nations is nothing less than a dark lens into his soul.

“Not only it is a swear word, a bad word, but it encapsulates a whole perspective,’’ Jay told me this week when I visited him at his college office here. “You would use that word about a bar or a bathroom. But for the president to say that about a country, and therefore the people who live in that country, really shows a bias.


“While he comes across as a populist, he’s an elitist. That’s the way somebody who has a lot of money and travels all over the world talks about those other parts of the world. Why would I go to that s---hole? We don’t want anybody here from that s---hole.’’

Jay is 67 now, a psychology professor emeritus who grew up in Ohio, the middle child of a homemaker and a masonry contractor who never swore in front of his children.

“My mom was pretty religious and I was raised in the evangelical church,’’ he said. “My mom never swore. I never heard my dad swear until I worked with him. All these guys swear and the carpenters are worse than the bricklayers.’’

Jay said he was barely 5 years old when he first discovered how words of four letters can pack such an emotional punch. Or, in his case, a slap.

He has seen a three-word phrase scrawled on the side of his uncle’s pharmacy. One day, when his grandmother was walking across his front porch, he tried it out on her. “Go to hell,’’ he told her.

“My mom whacked me with the back of her hand on the back of my head,’’ he said.

And somewhere, a light bulb went off.

As an undergraduate at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, he played hockey and stumbled upon a course about language. It would become his life’s work. He collected his doctorate degree in cognitive psychology from Kent State University.


“I realized there were very few scholars who made a career out of studying swearing,’’ he said. So that’s what he decided to do.

Some of his findings are of the holy s--- variety. Like this one: Children know 42 taboo words by the time they reach kindergarten. Or this: Just 10 words account for 80 percent of swearing. The least used swear word? Sucks.

So perhaps it’s little wonder that across the years he struck up a friendship with the great comedian George Carlin who, in 1972, developed a monologue for the ages called “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.’’

Tim Jay knew them all and all their permutations and, soon enough, he got to know Carlin, who sent him backstage passes to his performances from Albany to Colorado.

“Carlin had seen a documentary I was in on ESPN,’’ Jay recalled. “And he called me up and said, ‘Are you for real? Is this your real job?’ ’’

When Jay and his daughter, Jessica, saw a Carlin performance in Colorado Springs, the comedian took them backstage and held his hands out before her 2 feet apart. “My bookshelf has this much space of your dad’s work,’’ he told her.

His daughter is 47 and married now, the mother of his 11-year-old grandson.

“Does she swear?’’ I asked.

“She’s a lawyer,’’ he said, breaking into a wide grin. That would be a yes.

These days, Tim Jay is staying busy with his life-long avocations. Yes, he’s still playing hockey. “Played yesterday,’’ he said. “My back’s still sore.’’


And he’s still keeping track of the underbelly of the American conversation.

When I told him that my impression that swearing was a linguistic crutch — one I’ve been known to lean on now and again — he told me that I had things precisely backwards.

“I think of that as linguistic snobbery,’’ he said. “I think it’s another way to put down less educated people, teenagers, undereducated people. We’ve published a study that shows the exact opposite. As vocabulary goes up, swearing goes up.’’

When Tim Jay is on the ice or on the tee box of his favorite golf course, he’s been known to employ the words he’s studied so intensely.

“I don’t swear a lot,’’ he told me. “I swear with my buddies when I play golf. And the worse I get, the worse the swearing gets. But swearing at other people? I don’t like that at all.’’

And he doesn’t like the words coming out of our president’s mouth. It’s not the profanity that bothers him so much. It’s the pure hatred that propel those words.

“He’s got a whole history of racist comments,’’ Jay, a Democrat, said. “It’s about the way he talked about immigrants and Mexicans as rapists and criminals. It’s about the whole litany of trying to make us afraid of immigrants and denigrating them. We don’t want them here because they’re poor. They want our jobs. They’re criminals. They come from these places that are terrible.’’


Those are the real vulgarities that bounce off the walls at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Like many people, when I heard Trump’s rancid and dismissive remarks about a whole race of people, I had an instantaneous reaction that I expressed out loud in my empty living room.

“Forget you,’’ I said.

Except I used a word that was shorter and sharper.

It fit the moment so perfectly. And, fleetingly, it felt so effing good.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.