From Kathleen Parker in today's Washington Post:
Scene: An elevator in New York Presbyterian Hospital where several others and I were temporary hostages of a filthy-mouthed woman who was profanely berating her male companion. It wasn’t possible to discern whether he was her mate or her son, but his attire (baggy drawers) and insolent disposition seemed to suggest the latter.
Every other word out of the woman’s mouth was mother——, presumably a coincidental reference to any familial relationship. Finally, she shared with us bystanders her belief that said mother—— would not be welcome in her house (Hark! Good news at last!) and that he could very well seek shelter at his mother—-ing father’s house. Aha, family ties established.
The race and class of the woman and her companion weren't specified, but readers might have been able to divine those attributes from the particular word Parker chose to report (or was that the only vulgarity the woman used?), helped along by the setting at Broadway and 168th Street and the mentions of the separated father and in particular of the young man's "baggy drawers," which presumably were intended to convey some relevant information. (If it had been an upper-middle-class white woman screaming "motherfucker" at a phat-pantsed white preppie, communicative cooperativeness would have obliged Parker to mention that fact lest the reader draw the wrong conclusions.)
I've always found those nudge-nudge allusions to race and ethnicity immeasurably more vulgar than an explicit mention would be, in a sense of "vulgar" that's ought to be a lot more ethically troubling than the one that Parker is focused on — you think of the way people intimate someone's Jewishness by saying they're "very New York." But that's not the kicker…
After one of those more-in-sadness-than-in-anger diatribes about the cultural pathologies of American life of the sort that Peggy Noonan has made a specialty of, Parker concedes that, of course, "Context is everything… and delivery matters":
I attended a tea not long ago when the subject of Tiger Woods came up. A British woman, in her refined accent, said: “Oh, he’s such an ahs-hoal.” I told her we could use that word in any circumstance if only we pronounced it the way she did. Pinkies extended, all together now.
Now I can come up with at least five contexutal parameters that explain why the public harangues of the elevator expletiviste were obnoxious and offensive in a way that the English (one assumes) woman's wasn't. But the posteriority of the initial vowel of the epithet isn't one of them. Why should it be? Would the incivility of the first woman's rants have been tempered if she had called her son an asshole in an accent like Emma Thompson's? Would the tea party lady's reference to Tiger Woods be more offensive if the woman had sounded like Wanda Sykes? While we're on the subject of vulgarity — and insolence — can we linger for a moment on the smug suburban gentility of that word refined? You're left with the unsettling implication that the acceptability of allowing a naughty word to cross one's lips depends, in part, on how thick they are.