• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Synonyms For S***hole

January 2018


Let’s pretend President Trump didn’t say what he’s alleged to have said at the Oval Office last week. It’ll require us to be ahistorical for a moment. We’ll have to be crafty and original in creating our own script. With what word, then—given the chance to go back in time and re-write this controversy—would we replace the now infamous term “s***hole”? Does there exist in our capacious language a synonym slightly more sophisticated and agreeable to gentler ears? Can we find one out there, in our endless ocean of adjectives, just one word that’s a bit less offensive and crude?


I think it’s not too tall a task. For starters, how about “fixer-upper”? It’s a tired phrase, I’ll admit, no thanks to HGTV, but it does the job. “Dilapidated” does as well, even if it’s a bit less easy on the ears and euphemistic. “Run-down”, “ramshackle”, “rickety”, “in-repair”: we’ve exhausted the r’s but haven’t in the process caused an international furor. How about “shabby”, “decrepit”, or simply “worse for the wear”? Not a kind word among them, no doubt, but surely any would be better than s***hole.


Trump might’ve chosen any of these words, or all of these words, for that matter, but he settled on “s***hole” …or “s***house”. We’re not entirely sure which. Somehow, though, the national debate is now turning on this distinction without a difference, between him having said “s***hole”, “s***house”, or—I almost forgot—having said nothing at all.


This is the position the president has taken up—that is, the last of the above three. A day after his alleged remark made its way uncensored around cable news, Trump vehemently denied having uttered such a coarse imprecation. He called his language at the meeting “tough”, doubtless, but nothing unfit for civilized ears. He then pivoted quickly toward the Democrats and assailed their inability to come to an agreement on immigration reform. He deflected the outrage that was focused upon him by calling them obstructionists hell-bent on risking the Obama-era DACA deal, which they ardently and he quietly needs to be resolved. Failing to do so would be a black mark on his résumé, and he knows it. His, and not the Democrats’ would be the name affixed to the forced exodus of nearly one million “Dreamers”, or those who arrived in this country as children illegally, by—as the saying goes—no fault of their own. Regardless, he’s put the onus squarely on the Democrats should DACA die and immigration reform fail.


I found it surprising and, frankly, telling that when the president came out with this denial of what he probably said, claiming he’d said “tough” words but nothing egregiously obscene, no one batted an eye. His defense came and went as if it hadn’t been mounted at all. No one took it seriously. No one gave it credence or thought it credible in the least. The argument had already moved beyond that point. We were debating not if anything at all was said, but what exactly was said.


This, to me, is no small thing. It’s worth lingering on, if only for a moment. We’re taught to have a healthy suspicion of our political leaders. We feel within us an inextricable compulsion to question. It’s an odd personality trait built into the fibers of a free society who at one time wasn’t. Anything less than a healthy suspicion risks us being too easily taken in, while anything more stifles progress in an inescapable sludge of excessive skepticism. But the public’s reaction to President Trump’s defense was altogether new. It can be described only as a presumption of deceit, as if we expected his denial to be, at best, disingenuous and at worst, mendacious. That’s a startling thing with which to come to grips.


Not a single person (or better yet, not very many) deigned to believe him, but at the same time, none of us stopped to think about how crazy that is. Here we have the President of the United States, our representative upon the world’s stage, flatly denying he said something obscene, and no one so much as slowing down to pretend there’s truth to the claim. It’s astonishing, and a testament to how allergic to reality we think this president has become. It reveals just how far our expectations have sunk. We’ve all but accepted that our president, the most powerful man in the world, lives in his own reality, and we let him do it, as we pursue ours.


So, most of us agreed, on a hunch more or less, that the president was lying, but the question remained what exactly he said. Reality, at this point, split once again. Senator Dick Durbin, the sole Democrat in the Oval Office with President Trump at the time, relayed to the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey what he heard the president say. It was through this conduit—the Washington Post—that the world added to its lexicon “s***hole”, another Trumpian term that will live in infamy next to “fire and fury”, “covfefe”, and “both sides”. But other Senators present during the meeting said they heard something different. Tom Cotton and David Perdue, both southern Republicans and immigration hawks, denied having heard Trump say what he did (or didn’t). In a joint statement, they claimed they were unable specifically to recall what the president uttered. That’s not an unusual defense for someone trying to stay neutral without overtly lying to the public. Shortly after this initial statement, though, their amnesia seemed to have subsided; both senators pivoted and aligned themselves with Trump and his account, denying outright that anything inappropriate was said.


To this line of defense, they reconciled themselves, but things weren’t adding up. There were four men and three stories; not everyone could be telling the truth. Not to mention, the Oval Office is only so big. A word like “s***hole” isn’t likely to bounce off those walls without someone being there to hear it. If only the portraits and the statuary could speak, what tales Churchill and Jackson might tell. Shame. What’s worse, though, this simple matter of truth was beginning to cut along party lines—verity and falsity were wavering left and right, when reality, as I understand it, is not something that should be taking sides. Durbin the Democrat said one thing, Cotton and Perdue, the Republicans, another. The latter had on their side numbers, three against one; the former, a news media forever eager to excoriate Trump.


The score needed settling and that’s precisely what Lindsey Graham did. The Republican from South Carolina threw his hat into the ring by confirming Durbin’s account. In an interview with a local reporter, Graham said of Durbin’s account that it was “basically accurate”. Since then, doing his best not to add fuel to the fire, he assured us that his “memory hasn’t evolved” in the way Cotton and Perdue’s did over the matter. Not only does it appear Graham is telling the truth, but we’re told that after having heard Trump say what he did, Graham accosted him for having been so vulgar. It’s encouraging to know that decency, though moribund, isn’t completely dead, and Graham is our unexpected proof.

Had Graham not spoken up, Durbin’s word would’ve been one against three and it might’ve looked like a cut-and-dry attempt at a partisan character assault. What we now see is the President and his Senator’s perfidy. Their defense has crumbled, and the last leg upon which it stands is a matter of semantics. They now claim Trump to have said, “s***house” instead of “s***hole”, as if it really makes a difference.


While it’s possible we’ll never know for sure which word was said, what’s certain is that this uncouth, unavoidably dirty word lends itself very poorly to translation. The Chinese condensed it to “cesspit”, the Japanese expanded it to “dripping with excrement”. The Croatians put it best, and I daresay, most elegantly when they translated it to mean, “the place where wolves like to f**k”. I think, in Croatia, we’ve discovered a lingua franca (chock-full of lusty, lupine images that I now can’t purge from my head). Perhaps, buried like a jewel along that scenic Balkan coast, we’ve found what could be their greatest export—an encyclopedia of epithets. Croatia, if you’re listening, please send this president a copy. At least then we might belittle lesser countries with elegance.

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