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Good God! The Way We Talk to Each Other Sure Has Changed!

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 12, 2020

(Illustration: William Bramhall)


I happened to run across this piece this morning. It’s an “On Language” column I wrote for the September 18 1983 New York Times Magazine, and, holy crap, how much our culture has changed since then! It’s about a time, long, long ago, when Americans were excessively nice to one another. The headline was “The Case for Malediction,” and, America, I take it back.

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times Magazine

Apple Computer ran an advertisement in various magazines early this year about the writing of a tricky business letter. The first draft of the letter began with the promising salutation ”Dear Mush-for-Brains.” But by the final version, the magic of word processing had transformed it, in effect, to ”Dear Valued Colleague.” The change may be good for business, but it is bad for the language, not to mention the blood.

Why not just come right out with something really wicked? It is the only healthy response to the terribly friendly times in which we live. The sharp word and the cutting retort are, moreover, commodities badly needed just now in American speech, which is becoming bloated and lazy with smile-button platitudes.

There are at least two ways to approach what might be termed the nice-nice crisis. It is possible, on the one hand, to take a sort of perverse sporting interest in the question of how much farther we can push back the boundaries of our national capacity for vapidness. Not long ago, I heard a television newscaster conclude her roundup of the usual atrocities with the earnest plea, ”Remember, you can make tomorrow a nicer day.”

Or, on the other hand, we can rebel. Tomorrow is almost certainly not going to be a nicer day, and what you’re going to need when you go out there is

the ability to state the awful truth with panache. I am thinking of a farmer I met once while wandering through the desolate countryside in the west of Ireland. He greeted me with the single word: ”Tourists!” He let the word hang by itself for a moment, then added, ”The Egyptians had the locusts and in the Middle Ages there was the Black Death with the rats, but tourists are the plague of our century and we’ll not survive this one.”

We got along splendidly, after a brief exchange of fire. Indeed, I would have been slaughtered in my tracks, reduced to a quivering mass of tourist treacle, if the man had urged me to have a nice day.

William Butler Yeats called this sort of verbal ambush ”audacious speech.” It can range from mild word play (I know an author who refers to his New York publisher as Slimy and Shyster) on up to the blunderbuss curse (for instance, Hilaire Belloc’s famous Christmas greeting: ”May all my enemies go to hell/Noel! Noel! Noel! Noel!”). My list of best-loved 19th-century poems includes an epitaph on the London publisher John Camden Hotten, which runs, in its entirety: ”Hotten/ Rotten/ Forgotten.” Audacious speech can be recognized in all cases by a malicious glee in the power of strong language.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing does not come easily to Americans, despite Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce and Dorothy Parker. I grew up with a strong feeling for two cultures, American and Irish, and am myself badly split in the matter. The American in me will mouth any cheerful platitude to preserve the peace. ”What a cute baby!” I’ll say, when the Irish part of me is thinking, ”This kid has a face like a plateful of mortal sins.” As an editor, I must often tell writers that their story ideas ”do not fit our present needs.” But there are times when I want to reply: ”Sir: I would not trust you to write a ransom note.”

Americans prefer to be nice, I think, because it is quick, clean and inoffensive – even impersonal. The Irish, on the other hand, still cultivate individuality and they show it with words. Their casual talk celebrates, and often aggravates, the differences between people. The farmer in the west of Ireland suggested that Americans were also too literal for audacious speech. We tend to think people mean everything they say.

Thus when Mary McCarthy declared of Lillian Hellman that ”every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the,’ ” it was merely true to our plodding national form for Miss Hellman to reply with a $2.25 million lawsuit. And when Billy Martin remarked, of Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner, that ”one’s a born liar, the other’s convicted,” it was ludicrous, but all-American, to reply that Steinbrenner was an admitted felon, not a convicted one. How much more fun it would have been if Steinbrenner had replied ad hominem – for instance, that Billy Martin’s personality would shame a cornered rat, or that Martin could pick a fight during a two-floor elevator ride with Mr. Rogers.

In this country, audacious speech has flourished in at least one place: the rural South, where a farmer might say of a neighbor, ”He’s the kind of peckerwood who couldn’t grow kudzu.” George Steinbrenner to the contrary, major-league baseball has also inexplicably shown flashes of brilliance in the art of verbal aggression. I will always admire Mickey Rivers for his put-down of Reggie Jackson. Jackson was once boasting that he had an I.Q. of 148 when Rivers looked up innocently and inquired, ”Out of what, 1,000?” There is, then, hope for a verbally aggressive America.

How can the average fellow shuck off his insipid ways and advance into the world of high vitriol? Start with politicians. They are a sort of test for the imagination in that anything bad you can say of them will probably be true, making exaggeration, which is one of the hallmarks of audacious speech, nearly impossible. But the real advantage of politicians for the beginner is that they seldom hit back. After practicing on them, you can advance to close relatives, hotel clerks and so on.

In the matter of style, racial and religious epithets and references to your adversary’s mother all indicate lack of imagination and may, incidentally, get you killed. At all costs, avoid the obvious. Teen-agers who call each other ”zitface” belong in the Don Rickles School of Insult, or worse.

Never attempt to vent your spleen on strangers in the street. For the more timid, it is worth considering the advantages of written communication. The difference between telling someone he is nutsy-bobo to his face or in, say, an anonymous note is not insignificant. If you’re going to insult someone to his face (which is the only decent thing to do, and God bless you), remember that you can still get away with almost anything if you say it with a smile, and you might as well use your front teeth while you still have them.

You’ll also have an advantage during your first few outings because everyone will be expecting the usual pleasantries and nobody will be listening. But what a happy day when that stunned look begins to appear on bored faces, and what a really nice day when people begin to reply in kind. After that, if some slow- witted clod boxes your ears or slaps you with a lawsuit, you can comfort yourself with this thought, which Maledicta, the journal of audacious speech, attributes rather loosely to Sigmund Freud: ”The first human being who hurled a curse instead of a weapon . . . was the founder of civilization.”


Richard Conniff was then a senior editor at Geo Magazine, and author of an anthology, ”The Devil’s Book of Verse.”

3 Responses to “Good God! The Way We Talk to Each Other Sure Has Changed!”

  1. […] via Good God! The Way We Talk to Each Other Sure Has Changed! — strange behaviors […]

  2. Just the best. Thank you.

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