Three weeks ago I eavesdropped on five strangers.
I stood behind them in a muggy jetway as we waited to board a very full flight to New York City.
Three of the five were friends from the Bronx who liked to travel together. They had come to Hilton Head Island to relax and experience the South.
Mostly, it seemed, they came to eat.
“The food on Hilton Head! Oh. Ohhhh!” one said.
“Mmmhmmm,” the other two agreed.
The friends gave a rundown of the meals they had to a married couple in their 70s who stood in front of them. The couple lived in Georgia and hadn’t been to Hilton Head in more than 20 years.
“We don’t go there,” the wife told the group, shaking her head. “Next time, you should go to Savannah.”
Oh, but the friends had, they had. After all, how could they be this close to Paula Deen’s hometown and not visit Paula’s restaurant and Paula’s store?
“We don’t eat there,” the wife told the friends.
I couldn’t wait to hear this woman’s reason for not eating at The Lady and Sons. Was it the fattening food? The glut of tourists? A never-talked-about-but-maybe-very-serious pressure to stay ironic and anti-mainstream among septuagenarian friend groups in Savannah?
What was it that bothered this person who had no problem putting down these strangers’ vacation while they were still kind of on it.
“Paula Deen,” the woman told them, shaking her head, “has a potty mouth.”
The woman continued.
“My friend was there when Paula was recording an episode of her show. She said Paula cursed like a sailor, and they had to edit out her cussing, and it’s a wonder there was any show left at all after that.”
The woman’s husband nodded solemnly. He, too, did not approve of Paula Deen’s mouth.
“I do love fried chicken, though” he told the women.
Then he said the thing that certain men just have to say about chicken and chicken parts even though no one asked them about it.
“I’m a breast man.”
With that, and a grin, he made a sound like the engine of a motorboat and moved his face back and forth in the air.
His wife laughed.
The friends only sort of did.
It’s just so interesting to me the different things that offend different people.
Also, what a turn in character.
Paula Deen’s colorful language? No, no. We don’t support that. Husband’s grossness in a humid jetway filled with strangers?
Sure. Fine. Hilarious.
I found this scene particularly fun to snoop on because two days earlier I had spent time with Jayne Violette, who is an associate professor of communication studies in the department of social sciences at the University of South Carolina Beaufort.
Many would have found our conversation to be very offensive.
But that was to be expected.
On Dec. 2, Violette will give a talk titled “A Few Choice Words About Profanity: Why Do We Cuss?” at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
In it, she will revisit George Carlin’s “7 Dirty Words” and look at the history, role and function of bad language and the current norms on vulgarity. She expects it to be a lively discussion – one that will require an open mind and a sense of humor from participants.
In other words, don’t go there if you avoid restaurants because the chefs oversalt their words.
“I’m feisty as they come,” Violette said. “(But) we didn’t use a lot of profanity at home. ... I don’t even use profanity too often.
“That’s going to make teaching this OLLI course very interesting.”
Swearing, as it turns out, is a way more fascinating subject than one might suspect when one considers how “bad words” are often associated with “low behavior.”
Really, though, “bad words” are the ones we’ve decided as a society are taboo. They evolve and change with time. So do their consequences.
Violette became interested in profanity academically when she started teaching persuasion and explored how bad language can be used to assert power.
“I thought of it more as a way of influencing people.”
Cursing can be cathartic. It can be menacing. It can be empathic. It can steam-roll. It can unite. It can toughen. It can even the playing field, she said.
To Violette, it’s all worth studying.
On the Internet, though ...
“People are more willing to be rude and crude with each other (there), and I don’t like that,” she said.
“In Victorian days,” Violette said, “(cursing) was a reflection of your class. The way you said your words. The way you used your words.”
As it happens, I had a Victorian tea Friday with Kim Poovey, a re-enactress, author and expert on the Victorian-era who lives in Beaufort.
She poured decaf pumpkin spice from a silver teapot from the 1890s and said she understands there’s a time and place for coarse language, but she doesn’t like it.
Not at all.
“I think it’s offensive to God,” she said.
Her favorite Victorian authors never included cursing in their writing. She went through the list out loud to make sure.
“No. None of them did,” she said.
When reading one of her favorite authors who used more cursing than she would’ve liked, though, Poovey had to mentally softened the blow to her ears by substituting the more polite terms.
She makes no apologies for this.
“Victorians don’t cuss in public,” she said. “Not ladies, I should say.”
She thought about it some.
“Not gents either.”