On Cursing

By Tom Jacobs and Troy Hatlevig

Profanity is the crutch of the inarticulate.

~ anonymous

Fuck you, you fucking fuck.

~ Joe Pesci, in Goodfellas

I curse a lot. I seem to drop the f-bomb more frequently than most, and I’m not sure why this is. I like the word and the way that it adverbializes or adjectivizes things in ways that most adverbs or adjectives don’t.[i] And it accentuates a thought like few other words can. I recall that one of my best friends growing up had an older brother, a true black sheep of the family—drugs, alcohol, county lock up, and so forth—and whenever his father referred to him, he never called him by his name (which I’ll say is Larry). He never said, when things went South for his son, “ah, that Larry.” He always said, “ah, that fucking Larry.” This seems right and true and appropriate. There’s just no other locution that will convey the sentiment.

There are many excellent curse words. Used to be that “douchebag” was the word of choice when describing an irritating or pretentious person (or, if modified to “douchebaggy”) an adjective to describe something overwrought or transparently depthless. Then it became “douchenozzle.” I’m not sure what’s replaced it, but I think the internet has had a role. When confronted with the incomprehensible, sometimes profanity is the only response.

***

No matter what, though, you still can’t really swear in front of your mom. Or, to be more precise, you can swear in front of your mom, but you can’t swear well. For example, one method of swearing well is by using purposeful offhandedness, as in, “so I asked the fuckin guy where his fuckin car was.” You might say that to your mom when telling her your funny story about the douchenozzle from the mall parking lot, but you won’t tell it in an offhanded way.

***

Swearing in front of your parents is a bit like smoking in front of them: embarrassing and humiliating and somehow dehumanizing to both parties. But still, there is an assertion of self there somewhere. Cursing in a most general kind of way is an assertion of self.

There is a peculiar thrill in cursing in front of people we shouldn’t (our parents, our students, our loved ones). But still, cursing rises like a dark light to imprism our behavior (both perceived and meant) on life’s stage. There is something about cursing well…about knowing how to deploy curse words to maximum effectiveness…that speaks volumes about your position in the larger scheme of things. Either you’ve plumbed or not; either you’ve worked construction or not. Either you have worked a blue collar job or not. And it is in the blue collar arena that the best swearing occurs.

Either to shock, or to generate some kind of fraternal resonance, or to simply act as a shibboleth…both you and I know this word, and I’m deploying it for a particular effect (to make you like me, to make you think I’m cool, or to settle the dust that’s been kicked up merely by meeting), cursing has a key role in our theatrical lives.

***

The TV series Battlestar Galactica changed the word “fucking” into “frakking”. I remember watching one scene in which rogue pilot Starbuck says “frakking” in front of one of the priests, causing me to suck in my breath and start looking for an exit from the room. Until I remembered that not only is she not my friend but a TV actress, not only did she not swear in front of an actual priest but just an actress playing one, in fact, she didn’t even actually swear.

***

Cf. The American Pie poster. Or these two youtube clips.

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/cork-soakers/280265

These are texts that make it clear that there are open secrets that bind each of us together in peculiar skeins, things that can't be said but that are always said that make us all feel like part of a community. We get the joke and giggle. This is important.

***

And of course there is poetry in profanity. Anyone who doubts it has never read or seen a David Mamet play. See Exhibit one below (“what’s your name?” “what’s my name? fuck you, that’s my name. you know why? Because you drove a Hyundai to get here and I drove a 80,000 dollar BMW to get here tonight,” etc:

Cursing is beautiful, it extends the horizons of expression, and perhaps most of all, it provides a kind of profane pleasure. And here’s the thing: the fuckin’ clock tells me that I’m late on submitting this essay. Well, we all do the best we can with the fuckin’ life we’ve been allotted. And I have to go get in my Hyundai and drive to work. That's my name.

P.S. Here’s a matrix from Nicholson Baker’s “Leading with the Grumper” about how to mix prefixes with suffixes to purposeful and hilarious effect. I have only added “jockey” to the mix, but I think there might be many, many more prefixes and suffixes to help us all out in our daily work of cursing to express and make it through the day with a bit of elan and panache. I invite any additions to columns or rows. I would massively appreciate it, actually, and will try to keep a grid that perhaps I will publish as it grows (that’s what she said, by the way…)

From Leading with the Grumper

You

Bag!

Ball!

Bomb!

Wad!

Wipe!

Loaf!

Jockey!

Cheese-

X

?

?

?

Corn-

X

?

?

Dirt-

X

X

X

Grease-

X

Hose-

X

X

?

Jiz-

X

X

X

?

Scum-

X

X

X

Scuzz-

X

X

X

X

Sleaze-`

X

X

X

X

Slime-


[i] I rarely use it as a verb, although I have always been embarrassingly fond of a story Sean Penn tells about when he used to go out to clubs with Jack Nicholson. Two women approached them and one of them asked Jack whether he wanted to dance. He responded (and you have to imagine Nicholson’s grainy slow voice here) by saying “wrong verb.” So it can be used effectively, if a bit creepily. But still.

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