As readers of this blog know, I spent much of my adult life abroad. Because of my work as a linguist (seven languages) and a spy, I was constantly called upon to assist on the battlefield in a variety of countries, many of which I can’t name because my work there is still classified. My work in Vietnam, where I spent the most time, is now declassified. But I can’t speak of where I went or what I did after Saigon fell in April, 1975.
I have lived, in other words, in many different cultures around the world. So I’ve had ample opportunities to compare my own American culture to that of other nations. Many things stand out about Americans, but the one that caught my attention most often was our unwillingness to discuss specific universal human bodily functions. We consider them subjects to be avoided, unmentionable, embarrassing. They are defecation, urination, and especially sex.
Virtually every other culture I’ve encountered is less squeamish than Americans. The French, for example, use the word merde (shit) in everyday speech without flinching. I found similar usages all over Asia and Europe. All the societies I became familiar with during my career accepted the operations of the human body and the products thereof as commonplace and unremarkable and certainly mentionable. The only nation that approached the U.S. in finickiness was the U.K. But even the British have trouble concealing their amusement at our verbal decorum.
My sense is that young people these days are more down-to-earth than us old geezers. They accept the human condition as normal, unremarkable, and certainly mentionable. My guess is that they’ll move us as a society toward more levelheaded approaches to our language.