Four-Letter Freedom

America Needs the Word ‘Shit,’ But Not the Shit Who Misused It

Vulgarity has a place in every healthy language. Why try to protect us from it? After all, the case of Mozart proves that even a genius can enjoy it.


Kena Betancur/Getty

Shit is getting a bad name. The word, I mean. With the global dominance of the English language, “shit” has become one of the world’s most useful expletives, an all-purpose cry of annoyance that everybody understands from about the age of 6.

But “shit” has now become stigmatized by the way it has been used by Donald Trump—albeit in a compound version.

Suddenly people to whom the word normally causes no offense have become reluctant to use it because of the loathsome bigot who used it in a derogatory rant against Haiti and the 54 nations of Africa.

And so, in the interests of rehabilitating the word I would argue that the continued health and usefulness of a language depends crucially on our being free to use any word it provides, particularly its vulgarities, as and when needed. A language at ease with itself is like a person at ease with themselves: It should be free to express a complete gamut of emotions from the sublime to the base without inhibition or proscription.

No single personality demonstrates the truth of this more than Mozart.

Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play, Amadeus, and the following movie, does a serious disservice to Mozart, particularly the young Mozart, by playing him as an infantile potty-mouth, rejoicing in farts and anal jokes.

This idea is central to Shaffer’s plot. The young genius Mozart displaces Salieri, the mediocre court composer, with his natural brilliance—and his crude physical jokes. In response, Salieri rails against God for using such an unworthy vessel for the creation of such exquisite music.

The whole idea here is that vulgarity and beauty could not possibly cohabit the same person. This false opposition is entirely modern—and rather patronizing at that. In the 18th century—an age of incredible cultural attainments—people experienced the highest and lowest sides of life simultaneously. Shit was, literally, everywhere, given the absence of sewers. In that sense, by our modern standards, Mozart’s Salzburg and Vienna were shitholes.

Those affecting a delicate sensibility are most shocked by the language in some of Mozart’s letters, particularly a bunch of letters written to his cousin, Maria Anna Thekla Mozart, daughter of one of Mozart’s father’s younger brothers. In 1777, when he was 21 and she was 19, it is more or less certain that they had a fling when they were together in Salzburg for two and a half months.

Here is Mozart writing, a year later:

“Come to Munich… and I shall take a good look at you in front and behind, I shall take you round the town and, if necessary, wash you down… Come for a bit or else I’ll shit. If you do, this high and mighty person will think you very kind, will give you a smack behind, will kiss your hands, my dear, shoot off a gun in the rear, embrace you warmly, mind, and wash your front and behind…”

In the same year, while he was traveling, Mozart became more poetic in a letter to his mother assuring her that his bodily functions were active:

At night of farts there is no lack,

Which are letoff, forsooth, with a powerful crack,

The king of farts came yesterday

Whose farts smelt sweeter than the may…

Well, now we’ve been over a week away

And we have been shitting much of every day…

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It’s worth noting that at this time Mozart had just delivered four new symphonies (K199 thru 202). Alfred Einstein, one genius drawn to a study of another in his 1944 biography of Mozart, wrote that “Mozart was a strange being, full of contradictions.” He also said that no one had a deeper knowledge of the human heart—self-evident in much of his music.

But what if these traits are not contradictions, but actually a natural part of a whole man, and a man who was true to his times? The finest of Mozart’s modern biographers, Maynard Solomon, explains the scatology as part of Mozart’s mercurial personality, of his deliberate love of provocation in social situations that he frequently found stiff with pomposity and cant.

Shaffer’s version captures this spirit best by using The Magic Flute as an illustration of Mozart’s need to vent his vulgar and comic side in his most popular opera, symbolically moving from the grand opera house to the music hall, and accompanying the joyous singing with a stage horse shitting a string of sausages.

The childlike images have persisted, Solomon says, because Mozart behaved with an ironic exaggeration “usually lost on posterity.” He loved “game playing, punning, riddling, obscenity, wit and general propensity for outrageousness.” The letters are notable for their riddles and some phrases in code that have still defied explanation.

Inevitably, modern doctors have given this behavior a name: Mozart’s scatological disorder. Benjamin Simkin of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles wrote a paper suggesting that Mozart was a victim of Tourette’s syndrome, the “involuntary uttering of obscenities.” Simkin analyzed all Mozart’s letters and scored them: 45 mentions of buttocks and defecation; 21 specifically of shit and four of fart.

You don’t need to be familiar with the demotic of 18th-century Austria to see how ridiculous this isa few days on any modern construction site (or possibly in the White House) would render this score puny. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary describes “shit” as “Now coarse slang.” It originated as schitten in Middle Low German and Old English, which says something for its stamina and also probably for its onomatopoetic power, a quality that Mozart would have relished.

So this pungent vulgar word has now caused an outbreak of shocked sensibilities in America that much of the rest of the world finds inexplicable.

“Shithole” has never appeared on a news anchor’s autocue before. On the day it was uttered in the Oval Office Lester Holt began the NBC Nightly News by warning, “This may not be appropriate for some of our viewers.” Later, on MSNBC, the wonderfully cogent Joy Reed immediately used it without apology but others on that network have since been hiding behind the unfortunate formulation of “S-Hole” that actually sounds more obscene than the real word. The most priggish of all has been the PBS News Hour where it was solemnly explained that “the word” would not be used at all.

Who are they fearful of offending?

Language was never intended to be monitored or modified by the sensibilities of those affecting gentility. The father of this pernicious idea was Thomas Bowdler who published an expurgated edition of Shakespeare’s plays in 1819 with an announcement that “those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” Ever since then “bowdlerized” has been the term applied to his many successors.

The serious point here is that once a nation starts shielding itself from the vigorously vulgar it enters that phase of hypocrisy that buries—or tries to bury—its original understanding and tolerance of the full range of language.

In my experience, most kids go through a phase when they discover vulgar words and throw them around to see if they can shock anyone and, when they find they can’t, give up on the experiment and learn to enjoy them as an occasional venting like the rest of us.

For years I’ve been annoyed by the PBS habit of bleeping every expletive from movies, none more so than when they air Four Weddings and a Funeral, that delightful romp through British mating rituals made in 1994. PBS deletes the first four words of the movie, uttered by Hugh Grant as he realizes he has overslept on a wedding day: Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!

Bleeping of that kind should be seen as an act of cultural vandalism, like defacing a painting.

For a long while the British have been as relaxed in the use of “fuck” on television or in movies as they are with “shit” and, occasionally, other four-letter words.

Of course, it wasn’t always that way.

The break came on the night of Nov. 13, 1965, during a live satirical program, BBC-3 broadcast on BBC-2 (get the joke?).

The subject of the program was censorship, a hot topic in 1960s Britain when many old inhibitions in the arts were being cast to the winds. The critic and author Mary McCarthy was debating Kenneth Tynan, the British theater critic who, more or less single-handedly, had championed a new wave of playwrights and helped to end a century of theater censorship.

The two were famously bitchy about each other, and in the debate McCarthy said there remained a case for censorship “in some cases.” Tynan was asked if, as a producer, he would stage a play in which sexual intercourse took place. This was his reply:

“Oh I think so, certainly. I doubt if there are many rational people in this world to whom the word ‘fuck’ is particularly diabolical or revolting or totally forbidden.”

He added that there should be no distinction between high and low art and that, after the abolition of the censor, a play should be subject only to the law of the land.

But the finer points of the argument were swallowed in an instant explosion of protest. The BBC switchboard was jammed with viewers protesting at the delivery of “fuck” into their late night decorum. The shock reverberated around the world. British tabloid headlines blared “THAT WORD SHOCKS NATION.” The French called it L’affaire du “mot.”

The BBC, however, did not apologize. It expressed “regret” but the show’s producer and the head of programming defended Tynan, who himself said, “I used an old English word in a completely neutral way to illustrate a serious point, just as I would have used it in similar conversation with any group of grown-people. To have censored myself would, in my view, have been an insult to the viewers’ intelligence.”

This was disingenuous. Tynan had carefully chosen his place and moment and knew he was pushing to the limits of what was acceptable. He was relieved when the nation’s attorney general rejected a call to take Tynan and the BBC to court on a charge of obscene libel. The government’s lawyer said he did not believe that a single word used in a discussion on censorship had depraved or corrupted the public.

After that there were recurrent bouts of Victorian hypocrisy in which the pro-censorship crowd argued that the BBC was committed to a campaign of eroding the national standards of morality, as though they were written into law. As a public broadcaster directly funded through license fees charged to anyone who owned a TV the BBC was (and remains) vulnerable to critics who wanted to see its independence reined in. But in the long run the British understood that in any adult society the reasonable free use of language isn’t something that can or should be litigated and evolves as the society itself does.

The result is that these days in Britain and most of Europe four-letter words from the indispensable vulgar roots of language pass without notice when they are used in a natural context and, as Four Weddings and a Funeral demonstrates, when they are the only words to use in a moment of comic stress.

Moreover, once you give up pretending that a word is in itself an outrage rather than the person who uses it with malign intent there is a lot more moral clarity. Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said of the Trump rant: “The language that was used, the attitude of the president, the expressions he made when it came to immigration just stunned me.”

Shit happens all the time. But to use the word in another of its meanings, sometimes it is the person mouthing it who is the real shit.