If you were walking through your neighborhood and heard someone let loose with a loud profanity, you’d bristle, right? Flinch? Maybe do a little scowling and muttering?

Sure you would. Nobody likes to hear that. And unless you’ve spent a lot of time in an army barracks ”“ in a bunk between Andrew Dice Clay and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog ”“ you’re probably not used to it. Despite the gradual, generations-long decay of manners, and the relegation of “etiquette” to the shelves of antiquity, we still expect to walk down the street without hearing loudly bellowed cuss words. At least, most of us do. If you live in a neighborhood where such things are common, you may want to consider moving, or maybe pitching a tent in the woods and living on squirrel meat.

Like it or not, though, people can say what they want. It’s that whole First Amendment thing. If the shouted profanities were sustained, and majorly disruptive to a large portion of the community, then the foul-mouthed culprit would be subject to arrest under various public disturbance laws. But the content of what people say is protected constitutionally. I’ve never regarded that document as flawless ”“ why would a perfect document have to be amended so many times? ”“ but the Founding Fathers definitely got that one right. Between that and the powdered wigs, they were clearly geniuses.

Which is what makes it all the more curious that a town in Massachusetts has approved an article allowing police to enforce a 1968 bylaw barring “profane” language in public.

In Middleborough, a town of about 23,000, saying the wrong thing in front of the wrong person could result in a $20 fine ”“ quite the price to pay for stepping in dog droppings and calling it what it really is. It was at a town meeting in June, according to the Associated Press, that residents voted 183-50 to start enforcing the 40-plus-year-old bylaw, which was enacted in an era when “profanity” meant calling someone a “total bummer.”

And that’s part of what makes the vote so ridiculous: Who decides what’s profane? Sure, there are certain words we can all agree on. The F-word, which in its versatility can refer to anything from joking around to fornication, is clearly a profanity. You wouldn’t want someone shouting that incessantly while standing in the town square ”“ hard to pass that off as performance art.

Other words and phrases are harder to categorize, partly because one generation’s profanity is the next one’s casual endearment. Calling someone a son-of-a-beeswax in 1950 ”“ substituting “beeswax” for the real thing, of course ”“ would be shocking, a true insult to one’s beloved mother. Nowadays, half of its utterances are intended as friendly nicknames for good buddies: “Hey, you son-of-a-beeswax, I haven’t seen you since that time you stepped in dog droppings!”

Location can also play a big factor in how words are taken. And I’m not just talking about the misunderstandings and mistranslations that can occur between disparate languages and cultures. Look at the United States and Britain. Say the word “bloody” in the U.S., and you can pretty well narrow down the possible contexts: “The crime scene was unnervingly bloody.” “The boxer’s face was bloody after the bout.” “Hand me a tissue, I’ve got a bloody nose!”

Say “bloody” in Britain and you may, depending on the situation, be saying something that would make the Queen’s toes curl. And it’s a two-way street. The British slang word for “cigarette” would not go over well at a gay pride parade.

So the good folks of Middleborough may well find that subjectivity is an issue in enforcing this quaint, little profanity bylaw. Fortunately, the office of Attorney General Martha Coakley issued a statement urging repeal of the bylaw, and suggested it not be enforced in the meantime, citing the constitutional right to free speech.

Hopefully, residents come around. But if they don’t, I may have to avoid Middleborough altogether the next time I’m in Massachusetts. With all the fines my mouth would earn me, I’d go broke in 15 minutes.

— Jeff Lagasse is a staff writer and columnist for the Journal Tribune and can be contacted at 282-1535, Ext. 319 or [email protected].

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