Does Dr. Know Have to Use So Much Profanity?

This paper is what’s known as an alternative newsweekly, and the main thing everybody knows about them is that they let you swear in print.

Do try to find the vocabulary and wit to convey your ideas without the use of profanity. It’s pretty pathetic when I have to snatch your column away from my kid, who is learning to read. Nobody else at WW—in fact, no other journalist in Portland—seems to have this problem. —Annoyed Dad

With apologies to Ira Glass, a quick warning: There are curse words that are unbeeped in today’s episode of the column. If you’d prefer a beeped version, go fuck yourself.

Just kidding! Have a blessed day. As it happens, Annoyed, I’ve given this matter more thought than you might realize. My self-imposed stylebook for this column (the one that requires me always to address the letter writer directly exactly once, like I just did) permits me exactly one F-bomb per column. This is the same standard used for PG-13 movies, which puts “Dr. Know” in the same category as irredeemable filth like Spaceballs, Adventures in Babysitting and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.

Besides, what is profanity, really? You could argue that words become unmentionable based on whatever topic the dominant culture is most afraid to talk about. In the 16th century, it was religion: The old-timey oath “zounds,” for example, was a euphemism for the then-unprintable “God’s wounds.” The Victorians were terrified by sex, which is how our current, waning crop of no-longer-all-that-dirty words originally became dirty. (The subject likely to underlie our next cluster of unutterables is left as an exercise for the reader.)

But let’s return to the topic at hand: You may have missed it, but plenty of writers who are not me have used expletives in WW. This paper is what’s known as an alternative newsweekly, and while alt-weeklies would like to be known for their gutsy, occasionally confrontational reporting and a colorful prose style influenced by boundary-pushing journalists like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, in actual practice the main thing everybody knows about them is that they let you swear in print. You’re getting what it says on the tin, and if you think I’m bad, try reading “Savage Love” sometime.

These days, even The New York Times and The Washington Post print these so-called taboo words when they’re part of a title or a quotation. Live a little! Sure, some folks are adamant that a phrase can have just as much impact without profanity as with it. But frankly? I think those people need to chill the heck out.

Questions? Send them to dr.know@wweek.com.

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