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'Language Is the Dress of Thought' -
Vulgarity: The Style of Our Days


Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.

As an ambitious young man in his teens, George Washington copied 110 rules of good manners from an English courtesy book of the previous century. He studied and "committed to the memory" these rules of genteel behavior because he realized that to appear in society, one must know how to behave, speak, and dress as a gentleman. One of the rules, which touches on the subject of this article, was simple and categorical: "Use no reproachful language against anyone, neither curse nor revile."

I am sorry to say most young persons today would laugh at such advice. We are living in an age when insulting others and 'sassing' family and friends are considered good humor. Cursing is so common that even the most obscene profanities are heard in homes and classrooms. And language in general has lost a polished tone and is becoming increasingly vulgar and prosaic.

Some might foolishly call this a byproduct of the uninhibited freedom of modernity. I would qualify it differently: I would call it the fruit of the egalitarian Revolution that aims to do away with everything that distinguishes, refines, and ennobles.

A statue of George Washington

A rule from George Washington's Book of Courtesy: "Use no reproachful language against anyone, neither curse nor revile"
"Language is the dress of thought," is the famous statement of Samuel Johnson, who was only translating the words of the Roman Quintillion. If what you wear reflects what you are, then your style of speech indicates your thinking. The Sorbonne cultural revolution of the 1960s did not affect only dress and manners, but also speech, which has become correspondingly vulgar and egalitarian. Most certainly, it reflects modern thought born from a revolutionary and egalitarian philosophy.

The leaders of the French Revolution who preached a false liberty from tradition and past conventions were motivated by the anarchic desire to be free of all proprieties and formalities, all the dictates of the established order. They wanted to turn everything upside down, to toss out everything good of the monarchical and aristocratic from the Old Regime. For example, one of their first mandates was that all should be addressed as “Citizen,” because they wanted to abolish all titles and courtesies of address of Christian Civilization.

If we analyze our history, we can see that in many senses we received a similar revolutionary influence. What has today come to be called the American spirit has certain parallels with the egalitarian and unrestrained way of presenting oneself that characterized the French Revolution.

Most of us today have been formed from the time we were young in the school of casualness and practicality. There is a natural tendency to reject formalities and embrace the vulgar, to revolt against the manners and speech of a genteel society in favor of a more relaxed and casual attitude and way of being. In the revolution of the 1960s, this expanded to include revolt against any and all conventions as part of the "right" one had to be oneself. In fact, this desire to break with rules and order, to revolt against logic and hierarchy, to say whatever one wants whenever one likes, is at depth a principle contrary to all order.

Therefore, the Catholic who would truly like to fight the egalitarian trend in temporal society, the Catholic who truly desires a complete restoration of Christian Civilization, would by principle choose to love everything that is cultivated, elevating, and ennobling, and likewise avoid everything that is ignoble, base, and coarse. This includes vulgar and egalitarian language.

The vulgar: One step away from the blasphemous

Some years ago, when I was a principal of a girls’ school, a mother came into my office to complain about her children's foul language. To describe the horrible words she was hearing, she herself used a scatological term.

"Don't you think that perhaps it might be better not to use words like that if you want to set a good example for your children?" I asked. The lady looked surprised. "That isn't really a bad word, just a little crass. You should hear the words they are using!"

What the good lady did not realize was that the revolution in language is like that in dress and customs. It is a process. Like the snowball at the top of mountain, little revolutionary habits and customs can seem small at the outset, but by the time the snowball has reached the bottom of the mountain, it has the speed and weight to cause enormous damage. If a lady begins to pepper her speech with little 'harmless' vulgarities, she is preparing her children to use more offensive and perhaps even blasphemous terms. And by the time the grandchildren appear, she will be stunned to find households like the Ozzies, one of the latest TV shows that I've heard is teeming with violently vulgar language employed regularly by both parents and children.

There is only one effective way to stop the eventual avalanche of vulgarity. It is to stop the snowball before it begins its descent. Absolutely no profanity or vulgarity.

Then, a kind of inoculation against the vulgar must be administered. How? The most effective way I know is by cultivating a taste for refined speech and manners in the home to keep its members from becoming co-natural with the vulgar.

I remember the violent shock I felt in high school the first time I heard some classmates using profanities with great naturality. I remember a second shock as I realized that these popular terms and blasphemies seemed part of a code that opened the doors to popularity. Thanks to the general good ambience of my home, I could not adopt the code. I cannot even imagine what today's young men and women in high school - and much younger - have to face.

Combating egalitarian language

Given the advanced stage of the revolutionary process we are facing, it is not enough to simply eschew outright profanities and vulgar expressions to re-cultivate the Catholic spirit in the home. It is necessary to make a real effort to confront the egalitarian trend of language that aims at abolishing formal niceties and genteel speech.

Good manners and fine speech used to be a mark of a refined person, a socially distinguishing mark. "Yes, she was a Daughter of the Sacred Heart," implied an education where a girl learned not only algebra and history, but also the social arts. She was educated to be a lady. Likewise, a young man with fine education was a gentleman. Following an age-old Christian chivalric code, he knew how to act in society, with special polished manners he employed as a sign of respect for ladies -- yes, even for his sisters, and especially for his mother.

It is a sign of a degenerate and disintegrating society when even the "well-bred" or wealthy no longer aspire to fine manners and cultivated speech in private as well as public life, but prefer a world of vulgarity. After forty years of the Cultural Revolution, persons of all classes and professions have become co-natural with the crude, the common, and the casual. The language we hear around us reflects an egalitarian impulse toward leveling all speech and thinking to the most basic and elementary. I don’t need to provide examples. One need only turn on the radio or television to hear the slang and loose tone of everyday conversation.

Many persons have become acclimated to this kind of modern egalitarian ambience where everything, including language, is easygoing, informal, and trendy. When they look to the past and consider the small disciplines of courtesy born from Christian Civilization, such as "If you permit me, sir," "I'd be delighted," "Could you be so kind as to wait one moment? "What is the state of her health?" they are amused or even revolted. How old-fashioned! What a waste of words and time…

Why? Because of an egalitarian trend in culture that wants to break with everything -- including language -- that has form and polish, everything that is elevated and refined. This mentality is worthy of repulse, because it professes a love for what is low, common, and crass. Ultimately, it ends in the modern taste for the monstrous and blasphemous.

Anti-egalitarian attitudes

The anti-egalitarian Catholic is opposed not just to the leveling of the hierarchical structure of the Church. He abhors the leveling and vulgarization of everything in both the spiritual and temporal spheres. He seeks the most elevated in everything in order to admire what is above him and understand it as a reflection of the perfection and sublimity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He loves what is noble and elevated in the world because he loves God. The restoration of Christian Civilization will be effected by those non-egalitarian souls with a hierarchical spirit who always wants to see, know, and love what is more sublime and elevated. This includes language, the dress of thought.

Posted February 1, 2003

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