One of the unfortunate aspects of the widely discussed Watergate affair is the bad name it has given to expletives. Of course when the presidential transcripts were published with so many (expletives deleted), it was widely assumed by the gullible reading public that the deletion took place because the expletives were particularly distinctive, pungent, or embarrassingly apt. Needless to say, the major news media have hastened to reinforce this suspicion.
As a result, the original and fundamental significance of expletives has been obscured, and their proper use may have been indefinitely set back. One of the more sinister sides to the transcripts is the very fact that by deleting all expletives, they leave us in doubt as to which were actually used by the president and his henchpersons. This has the effect of discrediting all expletives in the eyes, or rather the ears, of those who do not wish to be identified with the White House lifestyle.
As a matter of historical fact, the original and fundamental definition of an expletive is a meaningless expression added to preserve the meter or rhyme. Homer, well known to students for his great Iliad and its sequel, The Odyssey, would never have been able to achieve those great literary triumphs without expletives. Many occur repeatedly: for example, “far-darting Apollo,” or “Apollo the far-darter,” “golden-haired Achilles,” “strong-limbed Ajax.” Almost invariably it is Homer’s intention not to communicate his idea that Apollo darts far, or to remind us that Achilles had golden hair, but merely to make his verses work out. As a matter of fact, according to one noted classical scholar, the late Milman Parry, expletives were very useful in helping Homer and other bards ...1
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