Another Word Goes Mainstream?

Posted on November 18, 2009 at 8:00 am

In my concern for the continuing coarsening of language, I last wrote about whether the term “pimp” had become acceptable for children after it was used in the PG film “G-Force.”
The New York Times writes about another word that has crossed into the mainstream and has become a go-to insult on television and in movies.

On many nights this fall, it has been possible to tune in to broadcast network television during prime time and hear a character call someone else a “douche.”

In just the last several weeks, it has happened on CBS’s “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and the CW’s “The Vampire Diaries,” which are broadcast at 8 p.m., during what used to be known as the family hour. It has been heard this fall on Fox’s new series “The Cleveland Show,” which begins at 8:30, and on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.” On NBC, its use has spanned the old and the new, blurted out on the freshman comedy “Community” and the seasoned drama “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

In total, the word has surfaced at least 76 times already this year on 26 prime-time network series, according to research by the Parents Television Council, which compiled the statistics at the request of The New York Times. That is up from 30 uses on 15 shows in all of 2007 and just six instances on four programs in 2005….And while the word “douche” is neither obscene nor profane — although this usage is certainly offensive to many people — it seems to represent the latest of broadcast television’s continuing efforts to expand the boundaries of taste, in part to stem the tide of defections by its audience to largely unregulated cable television….”As a writer, you’re always reaching for a more potent way to call somebody a jerk,” Dan Harmon, the creator of “Community,” said about the word “douche.” “This is a word that has evolved in the last couple of years — a thing that sounds like a thing you can’t say.”

Unquestionably, the language on television has become more vulgar. And the argument that this is acceptable because it can be limited to a particular time slot has become less supportable. When television programs like “Law and Order” and “CSI” (and their variations and spin-offs) seem to be on 24/7 and raunchy sit-coms like “Two and a Half Men” run in syndication in the early evening. I find this word particularly ugly and misogynistic and am sorry to see it become mainstream.

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7 Replies to “Another Word Goes Mainstream?”

  1. I agree totally with Nell Minow. The so called exceptable language now days is awful. Society has gotten to the place where almost any type of language is excepted if it is used enough. When is enough enough? Not everyone uses such bad language. Why don’t people try to use better language and see if maybe they can start a better trend and not a worse trends.

  2. Firstly, I do agree that this is a word that doesn’t belong in primetime. Unlike “pimp,” which some in the discussion there have pointed out has developed a dual meaning (“pimp my ride” may trace its origins to the flashiness of the stereotypical pimp, but it’s really lost that link and thus it’s not so bad in my mind, whereas “pimping someone out” still makes one think of prostitution and thus has no place in primetime or a children’s movie), “douche” still maintains a very strong link to its original usage, no matter how the slang term is being applied.
    What I find more disconcerting is the bigger issue of programming that shouldn’t be on in primetime clearly is. Much as I personally enjoy the TV show SVU and consider it to be the best of the procedurals out there, it’s not a show that should be on in the family hour (though back to the subject at hand, the usage of the word “douche” in that particular show actually fits the overall gritty tone). Likewise for Two and a Half Men, though admittedly I’m no fan of that show. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out why a network like ABC schedules a lighter show like Castle at 10 p.m., but the grittier alien drama V is on at 8 p.m.; that just seems backwards.

  3. It seems that TV writers share the same philosophical and linguistic attitude as fifth graders. Using naughty or simply base words does not make a person cool, popular, or seem especially clever. The shows that really earn a strong and meaningful audience share do not resort to cheap humor from scatalogical references. I prefer Twain’s attitude toward swearing – creativity and energy carry you farther than mere fowl vocabulary.
    The idea that no gentleman ever swears is all wrong. He can swear and still be a gentleman if he does it in a nice and benevolent and affectionate way.
    – Private and Public Morals speech, 1906
    “There is nothing like listening to an artist–all his passions passing away in lava, smoke, thunder, lightning, and earthquake.”
    A woman named Elizabeth Wallace occasionally heard Clemens in his billiard room: “Gently, slowly, with no profane inflexions of voice, but irresistibly as though they had the headwaters of the Mississippi for their source, came this stream of unholy adjectives and choice expletives.”
    If they can’t exercise true creativity in their scripts they ought to go back to accounting or telemarketing.

  4. I’m not keen on the increasing popularity of “douche,” but then, I haven’t gotten used to “suck” yet. But what really bugs me, and nobody seems willing to address, is the increasing popularity of commercials for pharmaceuticals to treat erectile dysfunction and genital herpes. So far as I can tell, there is no limit on when these ads can be shown. If I had small children at home, I don’t know whether I would be more bothered by the prospect of having to explain this stuff to them, or finding out they already knew about it.

  5. Marian — For what its worth, even if there’s no legal restriction on the medical advertising you speak of, you can at least take heart that commercial entities do tend to “target” their advertising dollars. That is, you shouldn’t be seeing ads for ED medication during programming that is not aimed at men of a certain age, or for herpes meds during programming not aimed at younger adults who are thus most likely to be infected. If you should see ads like that on Nickelodeon, someone somewhere is losing a lot of money because their intended audience won’t be watching.

  6. Thanks for all of these very thoughtful comments. I am glad other people share my concerns about the coarsening and lack of imagination in language. You’re right, Dave about the targeting of these commercials, but I get a lot of complaints from parents because ED and other inappropriate ads for children are so prevalent in sports shows, one of the categories most often shared by families watching together.

  7. You can’t help but wonder if the kids watching these commercials for many delicate and intimate afflictions might be getting a subtle message that if you watch these shows, this can happen to you. It may not be overt enough for a kid to report on, but I simply wonder if they are getting the message, but it is not the one intended by the advertiser or its agency.

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