Wednesday, April 26, 2006

On (salty) language

Cussing is big news these days. There have been a rash of articles lately about how coarse language is creeping into everyday conversation. There was a column in the Wall Street Journal a couple of days ago that specifically addressed profanity in the blogosphere, offering a bleak prediction for the continued decline of linguistic standards.

This morning, the comic strip Prickly City got into the act. In today's episode, Carmen is complaining to the coyote pup, Winslow, that people are cussing more than ever. "Used to be," she says, with a disgusted look on her face, "you'd get your mouth washed out soap.... But not anymore." She sighs and walks away. In the last panel, now standing alone, Winslow delivers the punchline: "#☆@*&%! Lawyers!!!"

The punchline got me thinking about how lawyers use language, including profanity.

There was a time when a grasp of various Latin phrases was a sine quo non for a lawyer: res ipsa loquitur, quo warranto, de minimus non curat lex, et cetera....

(How's that for a transition?)

The use of handy Latin phrases has declined over the years although (perhaps) some lawyers may trot them out on occasion in an effort to dazzle a client or impress a colleague. It may even have worked once or twice.

It also helps a lawyer to have a few Yiddish words or phrases at one's disposal -- the motion in gelt (when a lawyer seeks to withdraw from a case because the client has stopped paying for services rendered) or the writ of rachmones (when the lawyer who's messed up begs for the court's mercy for the client's sake). And then there are words we use that we forget are Yiddish -- mishegas, nosh, cockamammie, mensch, schtick, bupkis....

But we sometimes resort to profanity as well. Not in correspondence (not yet, anyway) but sometimes over the phone during an especially testy negotiation, or outside (young lawyers, remember: outside) the courtroom in order to let opposing counsel know how little you appreciated being "sandbagged" or "back-doored" et cetera.

(Back to Latin, where it's safe!)

Anyway, I've tried to use profanity sparingly over the years, not because I'm such a prude, but because overuse diminishes the power of those words.

Swear words are words that are supposed to shock. George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" routine was genuinely shocking when it first came out. Now it's transcribed on the Internet (no, I'm not providing that link). Lenny Bruce got arrested for using words that little children now spew indiscriminately on every playground in the land.

Cuss words that are overused lose their power. The example that I remember from high school is "fie." (And, no, the term was not in everyday use when I was in high school; I learned this in a Shakespeare class.) If all of George Carlin's Seven Dirty Words lose their power, how then will we express truly strong emotions?

Let me illustrate with a couple of stories. One day, a few years back, I was on the phone with a particularly obnoxious attorney. I don't remember who it was; I don't even remember the case in question. What I remember is that I laid down a carpet of f-bombs and soon thereafter terminated the connection.

Gene Sullivan ran into my office moments later. Gene was working with me then; he remains, technically, "of counsel" to me because I'm holding open a chair for him pending his return from a temporary Pentagon assignment. Of course, that's been a couple of years now -- and Gene recently told me he's been recalled to active duty as a Captain in the U.S. Navy so I don't know when he's coming back.

But that's not the point. The point is that, as a Navy veteran, as a Naval Flight Officer who's made hundreds, if not thousands of carrier landings in his day (one more takeoff than landing, he'd tell you), Gene is neither offended nor bruised by a string of undeleted expletives.

But he responded on the double to my tirade -- checking to see if I was OK -- because when I used those words, at the volume at which I used them, the words retained some 'shock and awe' value. This would be a much better story if I could remember that the attorney on the other side modified his behavior after this outburst, but that's life, I guess.

So we try another example: Some years ago, when I was at my old firm, I took a call from opposing counsel in the office manager's glass-walled office on the first floor of our building. There were secretarial stations facing either wall of the large room outside that office. I had just come back from court or something when the call came in, and I had no idea where the conversation would go.

Well, the conversation went south in a big hurry and in a big way: Within a very short time, I called him a bunch of vile names, he called me a bunch of vile names and we both slammed down the phone in about the same instant. I vividly recall seeing that every face on that first floor was goggle-eyed and open-mouthed and turned toward the office manager's desk, where I stood, embarrassed at my complete loss of temper. I do remember this case, and the identity of the attorney -- and we've always gotten on well since we cleared the air between us in this unlikely fashion.

So at least in the second illustration, the targeted use of profanity had an ultimately positive effect. Therefore, I conclude that strong language may be kept, with Latin and Yiddish phrases, in the attorney's tool box -- but only in a separate, insulated container.

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