Recent discussions and subsequent condemnations, both nationally and internationally, over the usage, content and phraseology of a profanity spoken by the President of the United States brings to mind the subject of swearing during the formative years of the Boomer Generation.
The use of profanity by POTUS was nothing new to boomers, of course. Practically every president has been quoted slipping a few colorful nouns, adjectives and verbs into a talk among cabinet members or even the Press. Lyndon Johnson in particular was said to have had a salty vocabulary, and, thanks to the release of the Watergate tapes, Richard Nixon became known as the Potty Mouth in Chief. Nonetheless, boomers were brought up to know the appropriate time and place for certain words, and that was never in polite company. When boomers broke that rule, there were consequences. Depending on the severity of the comment, a swat on the butt or (loving) slap across the face might be in order. Mind you, punishment was meted out privately once the offender was home and away from even other family members.
The movie, A Christmas Story, immortalizes the mindset of parents toward their children using foul language. When Ralphie utters an unutterable word, his mother puts soap in his mouth and asks where he heard that word. She calls the mother of the boy named by Ralphie to discuss the situation, and the resulting din over the phone makes it known that the other mother is more than displeased. There is immediate punishment for the child in question. Ralphie is then subjected to alone time in the bathroom to ponder his offense, with a bar of soap lodged between his lips.
The practice of washing a child’s mouth out with soap dates back to the late nineteenth century. It appears to have begun as a punishment doled out by missionaries to children who lied, used profanity or verbally abused an adult. While it was never considered the top or best punishment for the offense, it continues to this day, though in far diminished occurrences.
A completely anecdotal survey of fellow boomers by Mister Boomer verified the veracity of this type of situation. Boomers have told Mister B that their use of any type of profanity within the earshot of parents could result in a range of responses, from a stern talking to, to corporal punishment or spanking, to at least the threat of washing their mouth out with soap. In some cases, the taking of the Lord’s name in vain might result in the most severe punishment, while for others, the F-bomb was the ultimate in offensive utterances.
In Mister Boomer’s household, he and his siblings were proverbial “good kids.” His parents used certain expletives — some rather frequently — but he never heard either parent drop the F-bomb, under any circumstance. Mister Boomer always felt there was a plethora of verbal options from which to choose, so cursing to him was not an art form, but a lack of imaginative vocabulary. Of course, years of parochial schooling probably had something to do with that.
Mister Boomer remembers quite clearly the first time he heard profanity from his older brother, boldly and clearly in front of his parents. The family was watching TV, and President Lyndon Johnson was addressing the nation. At that point, Brother Boomer came home. Entering through the front door, he pointed to the TV as he walked across the room and exclaimed, “What the hell is he talking about now?” His parents straightened up on the couch for a second, and his mother said emphatically, “Hey!” That was it. The incident was over. As it turned out, what the president was talking about was an escalation of the bombing in Vietnam. Seeing as Brother Boomer was a year from registering for the Draft, that may have tempered any reaction; or, they may have felt his infraction was minor and didn’t warrant any histrionics.
While Mister Boomer joins the multitude of humanity in condemning the content of the recent POTUS pronouncement, he views the profanity itself as yet another marker on the road to the breakdown of respect and casualization of our society that has grown since the dawn of the Boomer Era. While every generation is going to define itself by the very nature of the Generation Gap, it might behoove this latest Commander in Chief to take a look at the values that were instilled in boomers. Like the song said,
Find out what it means to me…
Did you ever get your mouth washed out with soap, boomers?