Talking about the F Word

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.

Zoobi! ZOOOOOBI!

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.

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Random Musings

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  1. 1

    >(and language is probably the largest, most complex exercise in consensus humans have ever come up with)

    Y’all are smart.

  2. 2
    E.D'Trix says:

    Have you ever seen the show Bullsh*t by Penn and Teller? I think it is either a Showtime or HBO show and I have only seen one episode, but the episode I saw dealt entirely with cussing and foul language. It was awesome.

    Yes, many of our filthiest swear words do come from perfectly normal Saxon words. Because the Normans were all about driving the Saxon’s into the dirt, part of the plan was to demonize the language (which didn’t quite work as English became a bastardized mix of the two).

    Anyway on Bullsh*t they followed many different people who wanted to eliminate swearing, almost documentary-style, and then Penn used the most intelligent, erudite language in which to explain that they were completely hypocritical and full of shit.

    One woman had made up a no swearing logo and was pasting them on hats, t-shirts and signs that she was forcing all over town to signify no swear zones. One of the highlights of the show was her bringing one into her hairsalon to her “good friend”. The friend looked at the sign and said “well, shit!”. It. Was. Awesome. As Penn explained, this was the friends subtle way of telling the woman she was an idiot, LOL.

    The woman was also full of helpful hints as to what to say or do instead of swearing. She suggested that instead of taking the Lord’s name in vain (Jesus Christ! Oh God! God damn it, etc.), we should instead profane another God. I shit you not. She suggested swearing “Oh Buddha!”. Whay profane your own God when there are so many others to degrade?

    Another suggestion was to avoid giving people the finger while driving, and instead, when someone cute you off in traffic, give them “the whole turkey”. This involves removing both hands from the wheel, making a fist with thumb extended with one hand, and then slapping your other hand, fingers extended, onto the back of it. Um. Yeah. That is a great substitute for the bird.

    And it all boils down to what Penn was trying to explain—words do not matter, INTENT does. So what if you give someone a “turkey” instead of the bird? Your intent is to still express a big ol “fuck you” to the asshole who cut you off. If you hit your finger with a hammer and scream out “Oh Vishna!” The intent is still to scream a curse to the skies. That is why it is so stupid to try to ban or eliminate words—there will always be new ones to take thier place.

    What if I decide tomorrow to replace the word shit with speedo (TM)? It will take approximately 5 minutes for people to realize that I am using speedo as a curse word. Does that make it any more or less mild?

    Language is ever-changing, and getting quicker all the time. It has only been in the past 20 years or so that “ho” has become a “naughty” word. Now when someone calls you a ho it is a “bad” thing, because of the intent behind it.

    I always thought it incredibly stupid when parents try to rework their childrens world and language into what they wish it could be. Obviously cuss words are no-no’s (I once got my mouth washed out with soap for screaming “Oh shit!” outside my parents bedroom door at the tender age of 8), and they should be taught that certain words are not appropriate in certain places, but you can take it too far.

    My aunt tried to ban the word “fart” as well as “toot” and “tooted”. Did they never again fart in that household? Nope. They made up an equally lame-ass word to describe farts. Phoofed. Yep. That’s right. “Mom, she phoofed!” If the intent is the same as fart, then what is the point? Other than looking retarded in public?

    Anyway, didn’t mean to talk your ear off—I just find it incredibly interesting. And feel free to swear up a storm here, it is YOUR spot to talk and be honest. And honestly? Nothing makes me giggle like indescriminent dropping of words like queefweasel.

  3. 3
    Sandy D. says:

    Michael Quinion has a couple interesting essays on the origins and use of shit, fuck, harlot and some other words in a book of his I just read (and reviewed here:http://imponderabilia.blogspot.com/2005/09/ballyhoo-buckaroo-and-spuds.html )

    There’s a lot of folk etymology circulating the internet, especially concerning the origins of taboo words.

  4. 4
    jenx10 says:

    I think that alot of our reaction to language is based on expectation.  We are told that certain words are “bad” words and so we have expectations that “bad” words are used in conjunction with bad or naughty things.

    An expletive is an expletive by the way in which the word is said and in its context.  I went to a parochial school and cursing, of course, was not permitted.  But we weren’t even able to say “suck” or “crap”.  So we said “park” instead (crap backwards).  We were still cursing.  Just using a different language.

    It reminds me of the Seinfeld bit about nudity.  We keep our breasts covered up and so it is titillating to view a little breast.  It’s forbidden.  But if we all wore hats because the tops of our heads were “forbidden” then it would be titillating to view the top of someone’s head.  There would be 5 second delays and bycotts when someone’s hat flew off during the national anthem at the SuperBowl.

  5. 5
    Feklar says:

    I guess I’ve lived in Eastern/Northeastern cities too long, because I was actually a little surprised to read that people respond strongly to “Fuck.”  My experience is that you can’t walk down the street—yes, even in nice/expensive neighborhoods without hearing some use of “fuck” or a fuck-phrase (fucking A, fuck that shit, fuckall, what the fuck…).

    The only word that I can think of that really gets a strong reaction accross class and age lines is “cunt.”  Personally, I find that far more offensive than the word itself.  I like to encourage cunt-positivism, because there’s something fundamentally disturbing about the fact that the single most insulting and offensive word in a language is a word for a definitively female bodypart. 

    For better or worse, my language is fairly indiscriminate—I cuss when the word is the best word to use (or I’m in a bad mood) but I pretty much let my subconscious make the choice what is the best word.  If I’m pissed off, it’s no use saying I’m peeved or irked, it’s inaccurate and doesn’t really say what I mean.  Words aren’t just to convey dictionary definitions, they also convey attitude and emotion.  That’s why a skilled translator doesn’t just do word for word translations.

    All that being said, it does depress me to walk down the street or ride the train and hear people conduct conversations that are almost entirely cusswords.  It’s not because I object to the words, but…I don’t know really, I guess I feel like something has been lost. 

    There may be times when a cussword is the best word for the job, but there are a lot of times when it’s not.  So, if a person’s only way has to express themselves is with cusswords, either they lead pretty fucking miserable existances, or their parents, schools, us as a society have failed, because that person isn’t ever going to be able to effectively communicate with the rest of the world. 

    Which, I guess, in the end does mean they will lead a pretty fucking miserable existance.

  6. 6
    SB Sarah says:

    E’D, I was nodding my way through your very erudite comment, got to “queefweasel” and about fell off my chair laughing. The use of cusswords to punctuate and entertain is about my favorite way to use them, almost like making people laugh on the inbreath and the outbreath when they gasp and giggle at the same time.

    Yet Feklar, I know what you mean when you near nothin’ but cussin’. Like I said to Candy, sometimes, it’s salt, to be used liberally. But more often, it’s saffron, to be used sparingly.

    Like “queefweasel.”

  7. 7
    Keishon says:

    I pretty much agree with you both. I find it funny that: My mom’s bad word is “hell”. You could never say that word around her if you valued your life. She’d have to be really mad to say “fuck”. My dad’s favorite word is “shit”.

    However, I can’t stand people who curse every other word in conversation. If you take out all the curse words, what the hell is left to make any sense? I remember my high school teacher telling me that the mouth is too beautiful to say such words. Some people are shocked when I curse and I say “shit” when I’m pretty ticked off at work or ranting about something that makes me very angry.

    I know some people won’t watch DEADWOOD for all the cursing on the show and my favorite line: cocksucker is used in every other sentence. I find it funny as hell! Love Deadwood.

    Ok, back to your regular scheduled program.

  8. 8
    Lauren says:

    Oh and my all time favorite, “monkeyfucker” which I learned from my father. Yes, I’m sure in some people’s eyes, this explains a lot about me. But he also gave me his love of motown and good shoes so it’s all good.

    I’m a word whore. Words have power and impact and fuck is a near perfect word. It’s a great expletive as well as a great verb and a noun too! But sometimes it’s not appropriate and I use another word.

    Certainly, there are words appropriate for certain occasions but if my heroine is bent over a chair in hot fast action by the hero, it’s a fucking he’s delivering – in hard, feral digs.

    Cock, now there’s a word! Oh, proud and jutting, I love it! I only use prick or dick in a derogatory fashion, “if you cheat on me, I’ll curse you so your prick falls off.”

    But really, if erotic romance wasn’t around, whatever would people have to be upset over? I look at it as my duty to humankind.

  9. 9
    SB Sarah says:

    Isn’t it funny how one word is The Worst Word Ever for someone, but the words you think are just terrible are no big deal to that person?

  10. 10

    language is probably the largest, most complex exercise in consensus humans have ever come up with

    Bravo. And I think that this is why we have obscenities. There will always be something someone shouldn’t say, and the power of these words comes directly from the idea of doing something forbidden. If “fuck” ever becomes an “acceptable” word, some other poor word will take its place as the queefweasel of words. (Thank you, E’D. Now I have coffee up my nose.)

    Latin is the medical language because it was the educated language in the Middle Ages. Plus, it’s dead, and it ain’t changing that much, so a calvarium in medical Latin will always be a calvarium in the textbooks, world without end, amen; it was not so much a question of highbrow or lowbrow language as it was of getting everyone on the same page about parts of the body. And still there is infighting going on about medical terminology…

    That being said, the Romans loved a dirty joke as much as we do. (Don’t believe me? Check out Catullus. Or Juvenal. And the obscene graffiti at Pompeii.) I find it gratifying that Romans found bodily functions and sex as funny as we do.

    I mean, the most embarrassing things are swear words. People look strange when they’re engaged in coitus, feces smell bad, it’s embarrassing. Hence, we swear. At least, I think that’s one of the biggest reasons.

    Something interesting my mother told me: sometimes late-stage Alzheimers patients can only spout obscenities, since they are the words we all say most often and have such an emotional charge. Any truth to that?

    Last of all: humor doesn’t need obscenities, but sometimes it’s nice to have them. Case in point? I find Chris Rock hilarious, but I find John Cleese’s taunting in Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail equally hilarious, and there’s not a single cussword to be found in the latter. I think humor lies in absurdity and juxtaposition, which you can do with or without dirty words as needed.

    Pardon the long rambling comment, but I’ve been listening to the FCC song and laughing hysterically in spurts. (Thanks for that link, BTW.) I don’t think I’m making much sense.

  11. 11
    Erin O'Brien says:

    You smart bitches have made me wax nostalgic for those frantic symbols on my keyboard, the one’s that sit quietly on top of the numbers and just beneath that scary row of F keys no one understands or uses. You know the ones, &, #, * and @.
    In gentler days, strings of these cuties acted as a scant bikini for the more crass entries in the English language—symbolic swearing if you will. There’s something sweet about a girl who catches a nail on a new pair of Givenchy hose and barks, “#@*%!” After all, we know exactly what she means; each of us is familiar with the unhappy result of hangnail vs. pantyhose. That girl earned that cuss word. She just effing ruined a brand new pair of $12 hose minutes before her date with Mister Long Dong.  Even so, I am thankful that the author saved me from actually having to look at her verbal flatulence, which, for some reason I do not understand, is actually worse than hearing it. Call it an old-fashioned literary show-don’t-tell sort of policy.

  12. 12
    SB Sarah says:

    Well, “#@*%!” is like choose-your-own-adventure cussing, wherein you can substitute your own bad word that you’d use in the situation. Personally, I’d be so mad I’d have a hard time coming up with the best word for that situation!

  13. 13
    Rosina says:

    No big lectures, but I did want to give you a short anecdote which illustrates some of the points you’ve made.

    An acquaintance from this area took her teenagers to visit her elderly parents in (I think) rural Montana. The grandfather and grandchildren were not enamored of each other. The grandfather complained to his daughter that she wasn’t bringing her kids up right, and their foul language was evidence enough. He had heard one of them use the word ‘fuck’ in aggravation.

    She said to him, you know dad, it shocks you to hear him use that word, just the same way it shocks him to hear you use the word ‘nigger’. I prefer his vocabulary to yours.

  14. 14
    Rosina says:

    PS thanks for the plug in the post (why does that sound dirty too? I blame the two of you)

  15. 15
    Victoria Dahl says:

    I love cursing. LOVE IT! I agree with a lot of you that there is simply no other word that can replace Fuck. It’s a gorgeous word and I love it.

    That said, I recently moved to Utah. Land of sayings like “Oh, my heck!” and “Crud!” Look, people. . . It means the same fucking thing! You can SAY crud, and it MEANS shit. Get it? I took this as an opportunity to cut down on my everyday expletives, because my children are starting school now, and I don’t want them expelled. (But my mommy says “sucks my ass” all the time!)

    I am not a chain-smoking hussy. I am a respectable (dare I say innocent looking?) stay-at-home mom. But I am also a word whore, and cuss words are there for a reason. They WANT to be used, people. That’s why they are so perfectly suited to the job.

    And who the hell wants to read about an alpha male who says things like “Gosh darn it” or “Oh, my!”?  Not me, baby. I get enough of that here in Utah.

    I do TRY to rein it in when writing. And I have had one editor say she didn’t like that I used “fuck” in a sex scene. It was a sex scene. A particularly intense one. And if a man has never said “fuck” to you during sex, then you’re doing sumpin wrong, darlin’.

    (Hello to my amazing CP, Jennifer Echols, who does a good job trying to whip my fuck-monster back into its cage! Perhaps you could use another word here? Perhaps.)

  16. 16

    I don’t think we can blame the English taboo words on the Normans—the Ango-Norman, and Old French versions are just as “dirty”—and cunt, shit, and piss were all used in “normal” (vs. porn or shock writing) texts right through the sixteenth century. You’ll find piss in the 1611 bible where we might use “urine” or “urinate.” There’s Chaucer’s reference to “A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep.”

    Fuck is first attested in a “dirty” poem by Dunbar—it’s meant to be offensive, and yet Dunbar uses it in code.

    Cunt was pretty common until the sixteenth century.

    Yet the very fact these words were “forbidden” insures their survival—everyone learns them so they won’t say them . . .

  17. 17
    SandyW says:

    One of the more fascinating aspects of Standard American Bad Words is that they are very easy to pronounce, so little kids pick them up quick. Real quick.

    For example, my son was about 2 years old, or thereabouts, when The Man of The House and I moved from a small apartment to an equally small trailer, the advantage being that we had bought the trailer. Anyway, my son got to play in the empty trailer while The Man of The House and my brother crawled around underneath and hooked stuff up.

    I got home from work that night, we were eating supper, and my son dropped his fork. He looked in the floor and said, calm as could be, “Dod-dammit.”
    I looked at The Man of The House and said, “Have a hard time with the water pipes?”

    We decided a week later that we were just thrilled that 2 year olds have trouble with complex phrases like, “Mother-fuckin-shit!”

    Do you have any idea how hard it is to keep a straight face when your angelic little boy says, “Mixelpix,” in front of his Grandma?

  18. 18
    Candy says:

    That being said, the Romans loved a dirty joke as much as we do.

    Nonono! Our forefathers were superior to us in EVERY way, and there is no possible way that they could be as vulgar and scatalogical as this current generation.

    Oh, this reminds me of a recording an English prof of mine played in our 18th-century English class. The album consisted of a capella renditions of some popular songs in seventeenth and eighteenth century England, and the one he played for us was called something like “A Pox On You And Your Smelly Farts” and the whole song went into incredibly graphic detail on why the singer hated this person, up to and including body odors. The whole thing was sung in four-part harmony by these incredibly prissy-sounding tenors. It was really, really funny, and I realized then that fart jokes have been popular for a long, long, long time. Probably since the first time a human came up with a word for farting.

  19. 19
    Candy says:

    Hey Lisa, thanks for the insights. If cunt, piss and shit were common usage words (though it’s interesting that fuck seems to have been viewed as a Very Naughty Word for a long time), I wonder what happened to drive them underground? Hmmmmm.

  20. 20
    SB Sarah says:

    I can vouch that “piss” is a common word in other languages. In Spanish/Spain, it’s very normal to say, “I have to piss.” But you could not wipe the shock off my face when my host family’s grandmother came in and said, “Hello! Hello! No hugs! I have to piss first!”

  21. 21
    Tonda says:

    I just love the fact that you can’t say SHIT on prime-time TV, but you can say SHITE (aka “shit” with a Brit accent). Spike said it all the time on Buffy. Don’t know how they got that one past the censors!

    My favorite expression is currently FUCKWIT. As in, “You ponsey fuckwit knuckledragging asswipe!” Well, that and COCKSUCKING HOOPLEHEAD (yes, I watch too much TV).

  22. 22
    Candy says:

    Heh, good point about shit vs. shite. Don’t forget how Austin Powers popularized the word “shag,” which is a much more charged word in the UK than it is in America.

    Foreign profanities: I was disappointed that the title for Baise-moi was translated as Rape Me over here, though not surprised. I told a couple of friends of mine that the phrase would’ve been more accurately translated as “fuck me” or “screw me”—but they wouldn’t believe me.

  23. 23
    Jeri says:

    Just wondering, C&S, do women ever complain that you call yourselves “bitches”?  I have an otherwise curse-happy friend who begged me not to use the word in my manuscript (one character called the other a bitch as a joking term of endearment).  She said many women still found it offensive.  Is this true, in your experience?

    P.S.: “Monkeyfucker” kicks “motherfucker”‘s ass.  Will change own vocab accordingly.

  24. 24
    Candy says:

    Yeah, we’ve caught a few disapproving murmurings here and there about the use of “Bitch” in our blog title, though very few to our face. Actually, very few people have said nasty things to us in our (virtual) face—can’t imagine why *halo*. There has been disapproval of the use of “trashy” as well.

    I used to try to explain it, but now, I figure either people get what we’re doing, or they don’t. The people who don’t get it, either they’ll read the blog and figure it out, or they’re so filled with distaste or they disagree with us fundamentally, so they don’t.

    Anyway: bitch is a pretty loaded, and I think it totally depends on the context, the intent, and the person. Sarah has occasionally greeted me on Instant Messenger with “YO BITCH!” On the other hand, if I call the beady-eyed hag who sits behind me in the office a bitch (and I have, though not to her face), that word would have entirely different connotations.

    Language doesn’t just change with time, it’s dependent on context and on the communicators. I think a lot of people have this weird idea that Words Are, that they have this immutable existence that’s separate from the objects or ideas they’re attempting to describe, the person speaking them, and the person hearing them. Trying to make hard and fast rules about who will find what offensive is just about impossible, though you could probably sum it up statistically for a certain population at a certain point in time if you had the wherewithal and energy to come up with a decent survey.

    Personally? I’d dig it if I read a woman fondly calling her girlfriend a bitch, because that sounds like somebody I’d be able to identify it. On the other hand, I know of other people who’d get their panties twisted beyond repair—who’d give themselves an atomic wedgie, so to speak—if they came across a book with that sort of language.

    Hey, how’s that for the longest non-answer ever?

  25. 25
    Jeri says:

    That’s a great (non) answer, Candy!  It seems like lately I’ve seen a lot of positive use of the word “bitch,” with strong women claiming it for themselves.  Someone wrote that it stood for Babe In Total Control of Herself.

    Some of this I think comes from the double standard women face in standing up for themselves.  Behavior that would be called “assertive” in a man is called “bitchy” in a woman.  So some women have said, okay, fine, if not impersonating a non-doormat makes me a bitch, then Bitch I Am!  It’s sort of empowering.

    It’s another word that has less shock value in England.  Watch an English dog show on TV and they’ll use the word in context with great gusto.  “What a magnificent bitch!”  Whereas American dog show commentators will call them “females,” even though American dog breeders call them bitches.

  26. 26
    Diana says:

    My understanding (this is seven years of Latin class talking) is that “cunnus” was the Latin word for vulva, and where we get “cunnilingus” from. However, “vagina,” which means “sheath” (i.e., what you put your sword in) was what the boys on the streets called it.

    So the question remains, does “cunt” come from Latin cunnus or Middle English kunte?

    Also, slut originally meant “little girl” and people referred to their DAUGHTERS that way.

  27. 27
    Gari says:

    Candy,
    I agree completely – it all depends on how you use the word.  I remember when I was a teenager and I had ended a friendship with my ‘best friend’.  That summer my mom and I were on vacation together and she told me that she was glad that I stood up for myself and found my “inner bitch” – that it was a good thing to have.  Ever since she and I can call each other “bitch” when we’re being smartasses to each other (not when I’m angry – I happen to like my teeth where they are, thank you). 

    I also think that using the words like bitch, cunt, pussy, etc… enables us to take back what they mean to a certain degree.  If we only let people use them as deragatory terms then they can hold power over us, but if we use them they lose some of that power.  Am I making sense?

    Tonda – I thought I was the only one who used “fuckwit”.  It’s one of my favorites.

    Note to self: Must. Add. “Queefweasel” and “Monkeyfucker” to vocab IMMEDIATELY!!!

  28. 28
    lene says:

    My 19 year old son was raised to feel free to use any words he wanted to use, but with the awareness that some people (grandpa and grandma) might find certain words upsetting. We discussed things like sensitivity to the feelings of others, etc. And even though hubby and I both cuss, and never restricted our language in front of him, he very rarely has used any cuss words to this day. The one memorable exception happened when he was about 4 years old. We were walking down a sidewalk littered with broken twigs and branches after a wild rainstorm, and he was hopping along making up rhymes.

    “Don’t step on a crack or you’ll break your momma’s back, right Mom?”

    “Right, honey.”

    “Hmmm. Don’t step on a line or you’ll break your momma’s spine! That works!”

    “Good job!”

    “And don’t step on a stick or you’ll fall and break your dick!”

    At this point I burst out laughing and told him he was the greatest 4 year old poet alive, etc. Sadly, the elderly lady who happened to be passing by just as he shared this gem with me was not so impressed. I got *such* a glare, and I’m sure she was shocked and awed at the idea that he knew the word “dick.”

    And my inner response to her disapproval? “Ah well. Fuck ‘er.”

    Still feel that way.

    Lene’

  29. 29
    Candy says:

    Hey Diana: Thanks for the clarification. When in doubt, check out the On-Line Etymological Dictionary—that is, if you don’t have a decent dictionary with its own etymological section handy. Though it is run by only one guy, so caveat emptor. Anyway, check out what it has to say about cunt.

    And I didn’t know that vagina wasn’t used to describe the fiddly bits until modern times. Eeeenteresting.

    As for slut: it seems to have started out derogatory, though not necessarily in a sexual way, only losing some of its bite with written evidence dating from the 17th century before cycling back around again.

    Man, I could look words up on that site all day, every day. Though I guess I’m placing a little too much faith in its accuracy. If anyone can debunk or expand any of this information, feel free to.

  30. 30
    Feklar says:

    I just thought I’d note George Carlin’s seven dirty words:  http://www.erenkrantz.com/Humor/SevenDirtyWords.shtml

    To this day it surprises me that “tits” was verboten.  Granted I prefer boobies and tatas myself, especially bodacious tatas, but still it’s so close to it’s “legit” sister “teat(s)” that I wonder how you’d regulate it:  “Really, Mr. FCC we were just comparing her to a cow!”

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