Magazine article The New Yorker

Four Letters

Magazine article The New Yorker

Four Letters

Article excerpt

Four Letters

Discussions of public morality often have a teleological bent. People used to behave better, we hear. They never would have got away with this kind of behavior back in the day. But declines, like vasectomies and windbreakers, can occasionally be reversed. Can you put incivility back into the bottle once it’s out? So to the Cock, a London pub that recently banned swearing, to try to answer a question of the moment.

The Cock is part of the Samuel Smith chain of pubs. There are more than two hundred of them, and they are owned by a Yorkshireman named Humphrey Smith, whose old-school tastes manifest themselves in cheap prices, a lack of music or televisions, and “uncompromisingly Victorian” décor. Smith is known to make some sudden moves. He is said to have once closed a pub because he felt that its barmen were filling the pints too high. Apparently, last year the company decided that the language in its establishments was getting out of hand. Signs went up: “We wish to inform all of our customers that we have introduced a zero tolerance policy against swearing in all of our pubs. Please kindly respect this policy.” Last summer, at the Arlington Hotel in Yorkshire, where “please” and “kindly” were not doing the job, a “mystery man” turned up and, according to the Guardian, cleared the bar and kicked everybody out.

Damn. Whether or not that particular word is banned remains unclear (Samuel Smith did not provide a list), but attempting to take the curses out of pubs is a bold maneuver. As a social experiment, it is at once idealistic and authoritarian. The garden can be got back to, it suggests, as long as we all obey the gardener. At the Cock, the ban was already coming up against metropolitan apathy. “You can do whatever you want in the woodwork—it’s more like coming out and being really aggressive,” a barmaid said. “We haven’t had any problem.”

From a table near the door, bits of inoffensive chatter could be heard. “It was basically just biscuits and heavy cream,” someone was saying. Had the campaign successfully rendered the public discourse more polite, or just driven the dirty words out of earshot?

A youngish man wearing a cardigan and tie was asked how many times he and his party had cursed since entering the pub: “Zero, because we’re in a business meeting. …

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