Bad Mouth

Bad Mouth by Robert M. Adams is a slim little volume in the Quantum Books Series which publishes short studies distinguished by the authors’ ability to offer a “richness of detail and insight” in about one-hundred pages. This collection of six essays discusses the gradual debilitation of the English language, especially vocabulary, into modes of malice, obscenity, and ugliness; it is a lively work short enough to be read at one sitting. Unfortunately, the informal nature of Adams’ discussions severely limits his effectiveness as well as the overall value of his book for future research in this area.

Adams’ discussions group into three pairs of essays: “counterlanguage,” lying/obscenity, and the “ugly” with its metaphoric expression in American life. Although the individual chapters proceed from many areas—linguistics, sociology, literary criticism, and psychology, to name a few—their central thesis entails the slowly evolving “offensive mode” in art and literature which now predominates. Unfortunately, the author assumes the role of a “cultural commentator” who is not concerned with the causes or consequences of this change. Thus, he provides mere random samplings of examples to illustrate theories and observations. Adams readily admits that his all-encompassing inquiry involves a self-questioning mode which may distress readers who expect to be told clearly defined observations and opinions concerning our corroded vocabulary. Indeed, his speculations do prove to be provocative and provoking. But, effective trailblazing cannot be useful unless it leaves well-defined paths for later pioneers to follow and extend. A disregard for scholarly methods and academic modes leaves the reader with neither primary or secondary bibliography nor footnotes and index to serve as sources for further study. Stimulating reading is no excuse for the total lack of professional scholarship; a professor of English at a major academic institution should know better than to deprive his readers of his resources.

“Bad Mouth and Other Second Games” and “Invective and Insult” focus upon “counterlanguage” that hinders and hurts people in a variety of symbolic and practical ways. “Bad mouthing” denotes a vocal hostility, an “evil verbal sign,” directed toward an enemy. Muhammad Ali and former UCLA basketball player Tommy Curtis provide excellent examples of athletes who frequently employ this “psyching” technique in order to goad their opponents into errors. Other variations upon these “putdown” games include “bait-and-switch,” “private-key,” and “undervoice”: catchy terms which lack clear definition, explanation, and illustration.

The types of invective and insult are more clearly defined by familiar examples. The warriors’ boasts in the Iliad serve as extensions of their egos, while curses in Shakespeare’s plays are uttered in defiance of the cosmos. Today’s stand-up comedian, a Lenny Bruce type, trades insults with customers who laugh at his skill and massage their own egos by giving and taking verbal abuse. Deep insults consist mainly of sexual expressions; “bastard” and “son-of-a-bitch” have found their way firmly into American conversation. The “insult vociferous” depends upon an unbroken stream of invective, while a succinct insult, like Doctor Johnson’s “Sir, your mother, under pretext of keeping a bawdy house, was a receiver of stolen goods,” gathers its force from implication rather than from abundant verbiage. Indirect insults and buried insults receive less immediate attention than direct insults, but illustrate more clearly their speaker’s cleverness. Adams’ observation that today people use insults more frequently to prevent conflicts rather than to provoke...

(The entire section is 1552 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Kirkus Reviews. XLV, October 15, 1977, p. 1120.

Library Journal. CII, October 15, 1977, p. 2162.

New York Times. December 12, 1977, p. 33.

New York Times Book Review. December 11, 1977, p. 12.