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As the train hurtles through the dark of the subway tunnels, three teenagers consider aloud the events of their school day. They stand around a center pole only a few feet from two women who appear old enough to be their grandmothers. And this is what they say:

Actually, verbatim quotes won't work here. There was a guy who banged into one of them in gym, and an early-morning problem with the trains that caused one of them to be late, and there were girls, naturally. And in the recounting, all of this was peppered with a single word, the word that during the teen-age years of the women sitting opposite, and in my teen-age years, too, was considered the ultimate swear word. There, you've got it, right? These boys were using it as a verb, an adverb, even a participle. And each time one of them would use the word, I thought I saw a scarcely visible frisson in the shoulders of one of the women, as though someone had hit her with a low-voltage cattle prod.

But this will not be a rant about the decline of standards, or a sad lament that the dirtying up of movies and television has resulted in potty-mouthed American children. Rather, it raises an interesting question, particularly for someone in the literary line of work: What does it mean when a word doesn't mean what it meant anymore?

What does it mean that stories about swearing at the highest levels of American public life have been in the news during this election season, and have raised far less of a stink than stories about soft money and subliminal commercial messages? George W. Bush called a reporter what was once considered a dirty word in front of an open microphone and seemed far from contrite afterward. Hillary Rodham Clinton was quoted as ripping a campaign aide with a double-barreled obscenity a quarter-century ago, but the accusation quickly evaporated.

Writing about all this has sometimes been a comical exercise in shifting standards. In a variation on the game Hangman, Newsweek said Bush had referred to the reporter as a "major-league a---e." Taxing the reader's imagination even more, the New York Times used "expletive deleted." But the New Yorker went the whole way, printing the word itself.

Publications are still feeling their way toward community standards in a nation that is swearing more and caring about it less.

Or is what we're doing swearing at all? The boys on the subway were clearly not trying to offend or using the word as the euphemism for sexual intercourse for which it once stood. You could make the argument that they were insensitive to the sensibilities of their elders, and unimaginative in their range of vocabulary. But their language was by way of being a verbal tic, as unself-conscious and, absent an audience, as inoffensive as the word "like," which also acts as a space holder in the conversation of many adolescents.

Slang, particularly teenage slang, has a rich history of taking words and morphing them into something they never were before, stripping them of previous meaning. It's vivid, powerful and perishable. The very fact that the Republican presidential candidate used the term "major league" means that "major league" is so not happening. Today things are "mad," which means very: mad cool, mad fun, mad stupid. They're "ill," too, which means the ultimate, the best, as in "that's an ill bike."

Defenders of swearing say that sometimes it's the only way to express strong emotion. Opponents say it's a reflection of a culture poised between Sodom and Gomorrah. But they're both wrong. The words that were once considered so objectionable have now lost both their edge and their sense. They've been cleansed by use, and by overuse. According to a poll done by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, only 18 percent of those aware of Bush's vulgarity said it affected their opinion of him.

It's easier to put our moment where our mouths are by looking at the Clinton case. The pejorative she was accused of once delivering consisted of an expletive adjective, the word "Jew" and an expletive noun. Reporters who had heard the account of the outburst in the past said that the participants had conveniently added the religious angle only after Clinton ran for the Senate in a state with many Jewish voters; Jewish leaders sprang to the first lady's defense and said her past actions made it impossible to believe she was a bigot. But no one seemed particularly ruffled by those other two obscenities.

So today the words that still have the power to shock and offend us are not the words that reflect bodily functions or the bedroom. They are the words that express prejudice and hatred. Isn't that ill?

Universal Press Syndicate

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