Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated fleas do it.
That’s right, baby, we’re talking about “fuck.” Also, tits, shit, cock, motherfucker, cunt and any of an assortment of dirty words. Bad words are powerful, and people tend to have strong reactions to them, whether it’s disgust, disdain or laughter.
Yesterday, after stumbling across another page tut-tutting our potty-mouth, Sarah and I engaged in a long, long e-mail conversation about bad language, with some wild speculation about the origins of bad words on my part that I hope Sara Donati/Rosina Lippi and other linguists in the audience will help correct. Below is our dialogue, edited for clarity and length, and hopefully with most of our typos cleaned up.
Candy: It’s kinda funny how some people completely miss the point of the potty mouth. In some ways, it’s interesting to see how people interpret the foul language—like literary criticism, I think it oftentimes reveals more about the person than the text itself.
Sarah: Foul language is such an interesting topic. WHY do these words set people off? What’s funny is that, for me, cursing is like saffron at times, and like salt at others. If I’m good and mad, whoo damn. But other times, it’s to be sprinkled in with just silliness. I mean, why not play with all the words, including the cussy ones? Like “cuntmonkey?” Hee! I mean, I know better than to say that in front of my grandma, and if I ever addressed a conference group I probably would respect my elders and keep the potty mouth to a minimum, but why not play around with all the words in a language?
Candy: I think part of it’s a class issue. Dockside workers, fishwives, sailors, etc. are the ones known for using crude language. If you’re any kind of genteel, you use euphemisms.
And here’s something interesting: a lot of the four-letter words that are considered rude are Anglo-Saxon in origin. Shit, cunt and fuck are just a few, if I’m not mistaken. The acceptable forms of these words tend to be Latinate: feces, vagina, intercourse. I wonder if there’s some sort of connection between the Normandy invasion and the relegation of these words as foul language?
Sarah: You may be right that it’s an issue of class and of status. Cuss words in other languages are also fascinating. For example, in Quebec, all the Quebecois cuss words are church words: the words for tabernacle, chalice, etc are cuss words. I thought that was the goofiest thing, but what’s the difference between that and germanic English cuss words that are pretty much linked loosely by common vowel sounds and consonant combinations?
Candy: Hey, in Spanish, isn’t it, like, the worst thing in the world to call somebody a dog, a goat or a pig? I wonder how much of that has to do with an agriculture—many farmers don’t make all that much and they’re usually close to the bottom in terms of social class, so they pick on something ELSE lower than them on the ladder to use as an insult, which would happen to be barnyard animals.
Random subject switch: One of the things that has people hot under the collar about erotica and erotic romance is the use of what have traditionally been considered taboo terms. Personally, I’m happier with a cock being called a cock (or a penis or a dick) instead of a “throbbing love spear” or “iron-hard sword of potency.” But I know it bugs the shit out of many people that words like “fuck,” “tits” and “cunt” have finally snuck their way into a popular sub-genre of romance, and these words are creeping into other genres, too—many mainstream authors aren’t afraid to use the word “cock” nowadays.
Sarah: In Spanish, hm, it’s pretty damn insulting to call people a dog or a pig, but it’s also likely to have a double meaning that insults men’s masculinity, or imply that they are gay or being cheated on. “Cabron” for example, means male goat but also means your woman is cheating on you and you are a cuckhold. But then, a lot of men use it as a familiar term of address, like black men greeting each other with “nigger” and a big smile, though it can just as easily be used to insult the same person five minutes later.
Here’s big fun: cussing in Hebrew.
But the question of erotica/euphemisms and foul language is very interesting, because one of the definining elements of a romance is in how it addreses sex between the protagonists. There are a lot of people who use crude language while engaging in sex acts, and can only do so when with someone they emotionally trust, etc. It’s a tangled issue, to be sure.
But do I use “fuck” as a touchstone when evaluating romance novels? Does a novel wherein the hero or the heroine uses the word “fuck” automatically get mentally shelved as “erotica” or just over the border into erotica-land? I remember one Susan Johnson novel (I think – I didn’t get past page 3) where the hero said he was some kind of “master of the art of fucking” and I was so turned off I tossed the book aside. Was it the language or the intentions being described by the hero (sex with as many meaningless partners as possible) that bothered me? Hmmmm.
Candy: OK, here’s my take on the Susan Johnson character:
It has nothing to do with the word “fuck.” The dude just sounds like a wanker.
Master of the Art Of Fucking? Bitch, please. Might as well call himself Master of the Art of Tie-Dye, or Master of the Art of Incredibly Fast Celtic Tapdancing. Either way, he sounds like an arrogant asshole, and not even in a sexy way—more like in a creepy, wears gold medallions and leers at really, really drunk chicks at the local Polly Esther’s kind of way. I don’t like people who brag but clearly aren’t joking. And I would’ve tossed the book, too, mostly because the image of the hero as some sort of self-inflated date rapist would’ve stuck with me.
Behold, the power of characterization with only a few words. Sometimes, I just can’t forgive a character for saying something incredibly stupid. Just can’t.
For erotic romance, number of scenes and length and detail of scenes definitely have a lot to do with its heat level. Frank language comes with the territory, especially for contemporaries. The zing of the taboo has a lot to do with it, too, but here’s the thing: euphemisms sound too silly and their usage can push the scene into purple prose territory, and medical terms sound, well, clinical. Dirty words, when used right, make a hot sex scene even hotter.
Sarah: THANK YOU that is EXACTLY what I meant. But his use of language was an illlustration of the callous “date rapist” attitude, and it wasn’t like he said he was a master of the art of humping or lovemaking or sensual arts. It was like, “I’m a master at getting my rocks off.” OK, ew.
But in a very hot erotica, there’s a lot of opportunity for use of the word “fuck” that can be hot, sensual, even emotionally charged, and not at all off-putting. I mean, no one is going to substitute “Fuck” for “I love you” any time soon but it can come (har) close!
The other interesting thing is the power of these words to offend people. I think people get more upset if you use the word “fuck” in front of them than if you step on their foot. I mean, it’s serious offensive territory that is hard to explain for people. “It’s just a bad word. You don’t use that word,” etc.
Candy: Some theories on why fuck (and shit and cunt) still have the ability to upset some people a great deal when they hear it being spoken:
1. It’s a class thing, which I’ve already talked about. To some people, being vulgar freaks them the hell out. Having the right upbringing, being POLITE, etc. is tantamount, otherwise the fabric of society will rip at its seams, doncha know? Introducing a rude little word like that, I don’t know, it’s like seeing a cockroach or a mouse in your nice, clean kitchen. It’s a reminder of seamier things that you DON’T want to be reminded of, like the sewer line that runs under your house. Your house wouldn’t be able to function without the sewer line, but you want to pretend it’s not there as much as possible. You also don’t want to remember that the mice and cockroaches are everywhere. That they, in fact, outnumber you, and swarm in all sorts of places you can’t see.
How’s that for a convoluted theory? In my opinion, it’s only a very small part of this discomfiture—and I don’t think many people acknowledge this consciously.
2. The words just SOUND crude to an English-speaker’s ears. I think there’s a definite prejudice left over from the Normandy invasion whereby words that sound Latinate or Romance-based are deemed more mellifluous than words that mimic the hard consonants and short, staccato syllables of Germanic languages. Think of all the words that tend to offend people: most of them are one syllable with short vowels, e.g. shit, cock, piss, cunt, fuck, frig, dick, prick, ass, balls. Check out what the more polite versions sound like: Feces/manure/waste, penis, urine, vagina, sexual intercourse/making love/coitus, buttocks/bottom/rectum, testicles.
3. Cultural norms are very, very strong. Never understimate the power of societal disapproval, and if the majority of society views “fuck” as being a rude word (and language is probably the largest, most complex exercise in consensus humans have ever come up with), then most people are going to have an instinctive reaction towards that word. There are so many complex associations with that word, most of them overwhelmingly negative: it’s rude, it’s violent, it’s uneducated, it’s juvenile, etc.
Why number 3 happens kind of ties in with number 1, I think, whereby words that are commonly used by the unwashed masses are somehow viewed as less polite than those with a proper edjumacation.
There’s probably other stuff I’m missing. But that sums up a large chunk of why I think “fuck” makes some people flip.
Sarah: I am in complete agreement with your theories, especially #2; the sounds of the words themselves are unique and all related combinations of vowels and consonants (did I say that earlier? do I repeat myself? Probably – sorry) and are related in their sound construction. When I used to work at a summer camp with little kids, my favorite cuss word was “mother puss bucket” because it sounded awful but wasn’t – and I got it from Ghostbusters.
Also, consider the almost rhyming elegance of the words you’re not allowed to use on the radio: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits. And the ever-attractive “Mongolian Cluster Fuck.” It’s almost lyrical if you say it over and over.
Speaking of, ever hear Eric Idle’s FCC Song?
Candy: Oh yeah, I forgot about the compound words! Motherfucker. Is there anything more horrific? There’s not just the icky, squidgy incest bit, you’re not tenderly making love to she who gave you life. You’re FUCKING her! Aaahahaha.
Mongolian Cluster Fuck. Wow. I love it. It has a certain rhythm. I could dance to it. Somebody needs to get Amon Tobin on the phone and have him make a song with samples of different people saying that phrase.
Suck is also rapidly becoming a rude word in and of itself, especially “It sucks.” Also, “It blows.” I realized this when an aunt of mine sniffed and said that she didn’t like her teenage kids saying “it sucks.” Part of it’s the association with sex acts, of course, but in and of themselves they have more innocent uses than not.
Sarah: Oh the compound words are the best. Cocksucker! Motherfucker! CUNTMONKEY! All these nice words all smushed up against a bad word. Heh.
Suck and Blow are totally bad words. “It Sucks” is something I’d never say in front of my grandmother, for instance. Also, it makes me think of Spaceballs: Megamaid has gone from suck to blow! Heh.
Candy: Hey, here’s another random thought about profanity:
A lot of the detractors often make noises about how profanity is an indicator of poor education, and furthermore, when used for humor, that it’s somehow appealing to the lowest common denominator.
Question: IS using “fuck” or “shit” REALLY appealing to the lowest common denominator? Given that most people still feel somewhat offended when that word is used. Though it might appeal to the lowest common denominator if the majority of people enjoyed being shocked by seeing taboos broken or whatever.
Sarah: The whole “lowest common denominator” aka “cheap laugh” theory is odd. Because I bet that one of those words is EXACTLY what they say when they stub their toe in the middle of the night on the way to the comfort station/lavatory.
The idea that cussing is lowbrow easy shock laugh also implies that uneducated people only find vulgarity funny. But then, I find Dave Barry, who is very G-rated in his language (if you consider poop G-rated that is) hysterical, as much as I do, say, Chris Rock.
But you know, I can think of a few situations wherein cussing seemed so out of place and over the top that I noticed and/or raised a brow. It has to be used correctly, you know?
Candy: Yup, God knows I find a wide range of things funny. I think most of Wes Anderson’s movies are screamingly funny, for instance, but they’re not exactly known for the blue language.
And Dave Barry rocks my world. So does the other Very Funny Dave, Dave Sedaris, who’s not quite as G-rated, but he doesn’t gratuitously cuss, either.
And yes, there’s definitely a time and place for bad language. During formal occasions, or in certain types of work environments, or among a group of people who would frown at that sort of language (unless you want to be a dick), letting fly with the bad words probably isn’t the best idea. But in informal settings? Well, why the hell not?
Sarah: Hubby has a theory that one has to be rather intelligent to appreciate Beavis and Butthead, that it’s only funny if you are smart – he later amended that with, “and you’re not insecure about it.” I think that applies to a lot of scatalogical and lowbrow humor. In “New York” magazine there is a graph of current events with an X axis of “highbrow/lowbrow” and a Y axis of “brilliant/deplorable” – and all these local and national events plotted out on the axes. I LOVE the brilliant and lowbrow, and the lowbrow and deplorable. Paris Hilton is usually somewhere on the edge of lowbrow about to fall into the abyss. It’s fabulous.
Candy: Another random thought, this one related to the coining of terminology:
I think the taboo nature of slang words for assorted smelly/squishy/sexual body functions and body parts is reinforced by the decision to use Latin and Greek roots to come up with new words for assorted conditions.
F’rinstance: coprophagy. That is one fancy word for shit eating.
But to be fair, this happens even when there aren’t any bad words involved. Doug Hoffman wrote a hilarious post about what Ear, Nose and Throat specialists have been called.
I find it interesting that a profession that is immersed in the mess and stink of human lives and disease as medicine also makes quite a conscious effort to remove itself from it, at least linguistically. Name something in a dead language for instant cachet! It makes you part of the exclusive club. You call a necrophiliac a necrophiliac, not a corpse-fucker.
And a really random question: why does “cum” look so much worse than “come”? They’re pronounced the same, and they basically mean the same thing, except the latter has non-sexual synonyms. Perhaps that’s it? When you write down “cum,” there’s no mistaking what you mean, there’s no cushion of synonyms? And then there’s the fact that the porn industry popularized that particular spelling, too.