“You really think I ought to swear?”
“Yes, definitely. Goddamn it, George—swear.”
– Back to The Future
Back when I was still writing for the Southern Minnesota Scene magazine, at some point, it became okay for the writers to use swear words in their columns.
I don’t think it was ever not okay—it wasn’t frowned upon, but it also wasn’t, like, strongly encouraged. We could choose to use these words, sure, but at the end of the day, it was up to our editor to make the final call on if it made it into the printed version of the piece.
When I first encountered what I would refer to as a ‘top tier’ swear word in the publication, I was surprised, and I wouldn’t say that it became open season on throwing as much profanity in my columns as I could, but the bravery of another writer on staff gave me the confidence to pepper things with a ‘fuck’ there, or a ‘shit’ there, as I saw fit—without being terribly worried about the consequences.
There weren’t, like, real consequences, but my usage of colorful language occasionally came at a price—my column (and its profanity) had, at times, become a topic of discussion between my editor and the higher ups within the company. During one meeting, my editor said, “I’m just waiting for the day Kevin turns in a column that is just 1,500 ‘fucks.’”—a joke that was met with nervous laughter.
My editor, bless his heart, was also on the receiving end of the occasional complaint about my column—fielding angry emails or listening to upset voice mails from the more conservative readers who happened upon the publication, and were appalled at my usage of the phrase ‘naked woman riding a flaming boner.’
Because that, apparently, is worse than saying the word ‘fuck’ once or twice.
* * *
Do you remember the first swear word that you heard? Do you remember the first swear word that you said—that nervous feeling of rebellion filling your heart as the word left your mouth?
I can’t remember. One day, I suppose you are cognitive enough to understand that bad words are there, and you’re told you aren’t supposed to say them, but eventually, you’ll say them anyway; and eventually, as you get older, it becomes somewhat socially acceptable to do so, or at the very least, expected that we use them, and the words work their way into your lexicon.
Swear words. Bad words. Curse words. Cussing. Profanity. Blue talk. Adult language.
What do those descriptions even mean? And what do words we describe that way mean? Do they mean what we think they mean? Do they still have the power to shock that they once did? Or are they just words that we use because we think it makes us seem edgy or cool, but in fact, they just make us seem uneducated and crass?
When I was young, you learn that words like ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ are bad. Those are, like, very low tier swear words. You change ‘damn’ to ‘dang’ or ‘darn,’ and you say ‘heck,’ or ‘h. e. double hockey sticks,’ until you are old enough to figure out that these words aren’t really all that bad. You could say—you probably have said—a lot worse.
Both ‘hell’ and ‘damn,’ come out of a religious place. Hell, of course, is a place of ‘suffering during the afterlife’ (thanks Wikipedia), and the Dictionary.com entry for ‘damn’ is much more elaborate than I was anticipating. As a verb, it can be used to declare something as unfit, to bring condemnation upon, or to doom to eternal punishment—dare I say, to ‘damn something to hell.’ It can be used as an interjection to express anger; when it’s used for emphasis or to describe something of negligible value, it is a noun.
These seem pretty tame in comparison to other colorful words, so why are these things you’re taught not to say when you are young? Probably because they are gateway swear words—you toss in a casual ‘What the hell?’ or ‘Dammit’ when you’re young, and next thing you know, you’re on you’re way to the next tier of swears.1
Nobody calls a donkey an ‘ass’ or a ‘jackass’ anymore—but somehow, we’ve gone from that, to using it as a term for a stupid or foolish person, to ‘vulgar nouns’ to describe your butt (dat ass) or to have sex (getting some ass.) Ass, like so many words—both profane and not—has myriad meanings and it all depends on the context.
I feel like we’re getting into the slightly more offensive words, like ‘bitch’—its origins, of course, mean ‘female dog.’ But in 2017, I don’t think anyone describes a female dog as a bitch. Dogs are either doggos or puppers—everybody knows that. ‘Bitch’ means so many different things now—it’s a complaint, it’s when something is difficult, it’s when someone is submissive in a humiliating way, and of course, a malicious or unpleasant woman.
Similarly, ‘shit’ means the thing we use it to describe—fecal matter—but as a slang term, it boasts an equally long list of various usages. It is a term given to our personal possessions—“Don’t touch my shit!”; it’s what we say when something looks displeasing—“This looks like shit.”; it is a term given to ‘boastful talk,’ and it is how I describe a child who is acting up—“You little shit!”
Prior to arriving at the slightly more idiosyncratic swear words (names for both the male and female genitalia), we top out at this tier with ‘fuck’—the dreaded ‘f word.’ We all know what it is commonly used to describe (sexual intercourse! Gasp!) but it is, like many of the words we’ve already covered, is ‘used as intensifier’ and ‘denotes disdain’ (thanks again Wikipedia.) ‘Fuck’ is still, like, one of the worst swear words out there, I guess. If you say it more than once in a movie, it’s an automatic R rating, and it’s still hit or miss on if you can use it on basic cable.
* * *
The strange thing about all of these words, outside of the power we’ve given them and the power they have on others, is how may different meanings they have developed over time, some of them spanning from something really bad to something quite good—e.g. ‘shit.’ Taking a shit isn’t pleasant, usually; neither is something looking bad enough to be described as ‘looking like shit.’ But my possessions do not look bad—however, I will still ask where my ‘shit’ is.
And when something is unexpectedly great—we exclaim, “This is the shit!”
‘Fuck’ is similarly confusing in its seemingly endless usages—you can ‘fuck’ somebody, and you can also ‘fuck’ somebody up. The ‘up’ is the important distinction there between actions.
‘Fuck’ is what I say when I’ve hit my head or sliced my finger while cutting vegetables. ‘That fucker’ is the prefix I add before somebody’s name when I’m displeased with them. ‘Fuck yeah!’ is what you say when you’re emphatic about something.
“Where the fuck is my fucking coat?” is my favorite line from any movie, ever, of all time.2
I guess ‘bitch’ is one of the few swear words that has a number of meanings, but they don’t cover such a wide spectrum of applying to things both good and bad—save for ‘bitchin,’ which, according to Merriam-Webster, literally means something remarkably bad, or remarkably good.
* * *
Swear words can still be problematic for some more conservative individuals—I suppose this is why places like Wal-Mart only sell the edited version of albums with the Parental Advisory Explicit Content sticker emblazoned on the front3, and why iTunes offers both edited and explicit versions available to download. There are some people who just don’t want to hear those words, or don’t want their children introduced to them.
A recent trend I’ve noticed, and the thing that kind of inspired me to even dedicate an entire Column of Disquiet to profanity, are books that self censor their titles.
The first one I really took notice of was the parody of that book about de-cluttering your life—The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The first (of many) books to satirize the concept was The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving A F*ck, by Sarah Knight, who has since gone on to write two additional books: Get Your Sh*t Together, and the recently published You Do You, which is subtitled “A No F*cks Given Guide.”
Not to be outdone, Jennifer McCartney released a similarly titled The Joy of Leaving Your Sh*t All Over The Place; not to be outdone, Mark Manson recently released the similarly titled The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck.
Not to be outdone, Gary John Bishop released Unfu*k Yourself.
Not to be outdone, Michael Bennett MD released F*ck Feelings.
I have so many problems with many of these, specifically the late arriving, bandwagon hopping satires—what a waste, you know? A waste of time, a waste of a publishing advance, and a waste of money when someone buys one of these. They all belong in a landfill somewhere.
Self censoring your book title isn’t limited to self-help books (serious or otherwise)—sports writer and political commentator Keith Olbermann recently published a book about Donald Trump, charmingly titled Trump is F*cking Crazy; not to be outdone, David Daley’s account of redistricting, and ‘why your vote doesn’t count,’ is titled Rat F**ked—notice the use of two asterisks there? That really drives home the point that profanity is in the title.
In sharp juxtaposition, it only seems to be the words ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ that are problematic for the book publishing industry. Jen Sincero’s bestselling You Are A Badass requires no censoring, and neither does restaurateur Jen Agg’s memoir, I Hear She’s A Real Bitch.
Maybe these authors got their sh*t together and left their sh*t all over the place and unfu*ked themselves because they wanted placement in bookstores—and there’s a chance that if the word ‘fuck’ is written in huge letters on the front cover, that it’ll be placed on the front tables of new releases.
And this way, parents with small children won’t have to get into a conversation about what ‘rat fucked’ means before they are ready to do so.
Whatever the reason, for me, I feel like the inclusion of the asterisk really cheapens the punch that they may have wanted the title to have. Stopping short of being ‘cutsey,’ it becomes a joke.
It doesn’t all have to be this way, though. The title of Nick Flynn’s unflinching memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (an apparent bestseller, too), appears in full on the book’s cover.
* * *
One of my final columns for the Southern Minnesota Scene magazine was censored without my consent. I guess I really shouldn’t have been surprised that it happened.4
It was the June issue—the “music” issue—and I had written a piece about listening to music at work, and used both ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ within. Removing them didn’t take anything away from the piece; replacing ‘fucked’ with ‘messed’ wasn’t the worst thing that has ever happened to me—it just would have been nice to have someone reach out to explain that it was happening.
At the time, I was a little salty about it. And despite how petty I can be, this is one thing I’ve managed to move on from, because it doesn’t really matter.5 The person who was editing the magazine at this point is rather conservative, and probably didn’t want to see profanity on its pages. And that is their prerogative—some people don’t swear.
I work with a few people who don’t use profanity, or at least they go out of their way to avoid it. One of them—it may be to set a good example for everybody else, or maybe he’s just really that wholesome. I don’t know. He’s partial to using the word ‘rascals’ instead of ‘those fuckers’ or ‘sons of bitches.’ If he does legitimately use profanity, it means something is very, very wrong.
My other co-worker—he said he doesn’t swear because he wants to be cleverer than that.
I can see that—the concern that it may lack imagination; the concern that you come off as being rough around the edges or uneducated.
It reminds me of the episode of “Home Movies” about swearing—Coach McGuirk (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin)6 explains that you should avoid swearing unless you can do it right. “It’s called creative use of words,” he says. “It’s like poetry—like Robert Frost, stopping by the woods on a snowy fucking evening. That kind of shit. It’s my poetry—the everyday man’s poetry, because we can’t find good metaphors like the woods, or the snow, or the horse.”
* * *
Earlier this year, my wife screened all six episodes of her web series, “Lady Parts.” The event was open to the public, and she had personally invited a few people to attend if they were able. In some of the promotional work for the screening, I had encouraged her to mention, as a heads up, that there was some adult language used throughout—some of it was written into the script, some of it was a character choice she just rolled with during filming, and some of it was improvised.
At the screening, during the question and answer portion of the evening, somebody asked if women ‘actually talk that way.’
My wife Wendy, and her collaborators, Anne and Birch, all said yes. This person who asked the question seemed surprised by this answer—he is much older, was some kind of pastor at one point in his life, and overall is probably pretty conservative in a number of aspects. He said he’d never expect his wife’s book group to use language like that.
Does using profanity make you edgy? Does it make you seem uneducated? Should you try to be cleverer with the words you opt to use? Do we have good metaphors? Will the predictive text on my phone ever realize that I don’t want to use the word ‘ducking?’ Should I clean it up and use words like ‘rascals’ or ‘gosh darn it?’
Or do you just say fuck it?
1- For what it’s worth, I made up this whole tiers of swear words thing for use in this column, and ranked the words based on my own experiences with them.
2- It’s from Love, Actually, and I know there was some thinkpiece a number of years ago about how that movies is really awful toward women and yeah maybe it is, but this line, delivered by Martine McCutcheon, slays.
3- I have always found it fascinating that Wal-Mart only sells music that has been edited for content, but is fine selling rated R movies, and rated ‘M’ for mature video games.
4- Rich Larson’s inaugural post for this very website covers this whole thing pretty well.
5- Nothing does.
6- A post-“Dr. Katz,” but pre-“Archer” and pre-“Bob’s Burgers” H. Jon Benjamin, for what it’s worth.
Kevin Krein has been operating the award winning music blog, Anhedonic Headphones, since 2013, and he contributed the back page column to the Southern Minn Scene magazine for roughly three years. His writing has appeared on Bearded Gentlemen Music, Spectrum Culture, and in River Valley Woman. You can regularly find him using lots of profanity on Twitter: @KevEFly.
If you like what you’ve read here, please CONSIDER THIS. If not, fuck it. You’re still a good person.