Friday, December 19, 2008

Curse Words

A long time ago on this blog I quoted Emerson:

What a pity we cannot curse and swear in good society! Cannot the stinging dialect of the sailors be domesticated? It is the best rhetoric, and for a hundred occasions those forbidden words are the only good ones. My page about 'Consistency' would better be written thus: Damn Consistency!

With Deadwood on my TV and Mamet in my bag, I have been thinking more about curse words.

For the generation above mine, and even more so for the generation above that, curse words were really just totally unacceptable. Their claim that the media desensitized my generation to these words seems to me quite right: I can very much remember watching Die Hard as a kid and my friends and I talking about how the word "fuck" was used with awesome frequency: something like 17 times. Wikipedia has the Deadwood pilot using the word 43 times, and the 36 hour series as a whole contains nearly 300 uses of the word fuck -- roughly three times every two minutes.

I am, obviously, discouraged from using curse words in the classroom. The rationale is that as a community college professor, whose students are very often the first in their family to attend college, it is my responsibility "to model the way educated people speak." Of course I see their point -- what David Foster Wallace calls Standard White English (SWE) is the language you need to know to get ahead in most professional environments, and that is the main reasons students are at BMCC -- they are not there pursuing the life of the mind, they are there to make more money. At the same time curse words can be a very powerful in breaking down barriers between myself, and students who feel like college is this massive intimidating thing where you learn "serious" thing above their heads; these are the students who do really well in my class, but then come to me and tell them they are nervous to read Shakespeare because he is so important -- then they discover he has more in common with Hollywood then some kind of super-educated occult secret society of world leaders, or whatever thing it is that they think makes Shakespeare above them. When they hear me speaking intelligently about Shakespeare and using a curse word now and then for emphasis, they see that their day to day lives do not have to be divorced from good literature. I actually very rarely curse in class, and when I do it is usually timed to get their attention with a striking turn of phrase about some poem I think is REALLY good. But I do have a great first week assignment on audience in which I read to them an Onion article entitled "Why Can't I sell Any of these Fucking Bibles." It is an editorial drenched in the most foul language, and I use it to point out that they must always consider audience in their writing -- it is not that it is wrong to curse (the guy in the article admits to being a fantastic auto-parts salesman), you just have to consider what will make sense in whatever situation you are in (cursing is NEVER acceptable in a college essay or when selling bibles).

There is of course, also something quite tricky about the rationale that I need to model the way educated people speak -- I am the guy setting the standard. However I speak, THAT is how educated people speak. Our students may need to sound like BBC broadcasters in their papers (though that is arguable), but I am not sure I want to give them the idea that being educated demands that they TALK like BBC broadcasters, at least not all of the time.

The saturation of curse words in the media has led to something genuinely interesting: the use of curse words as some kind of crazy inheritor of nonsense poetry. The word "expletive" comes from a the Latin word that means "empty" -- originally "expletive" referred to those words used in poetry only to finish the metrics of a line -- words that added only to the sound, and not at all to the sense of the passage. "Expletive" now, I assume, refers to the idea that curse words are empty of meaning. That is obviously arguable, in many cases curse words have very clear meaning, but often they do act as emphasis and nothing else, and make very little sense: what exactly is the "fuck" in "fuck you" mean? It really just amounts to throwing an offensive word -- regardless of meaning -- AT the person you are talking to. How about the "fuck" in "For Fuck's Sake" -- that one seems to be little more than a "For God's Sake" where "Fuck" has replaced God: the word "fuck" there is pure emphasis, with no meaning, and is the sound that works, rather than any particular sense.

It is on this point that the poetry of John Ashbery (for example) and Deadwood come together -- in this emphasis on sound over sense. Not that sense is gone -- just that it becomes secondary to the free floating sounds of word, and word associations (connotations) become more important that any precise dictionary definition. Mamet, Milch (Deadwood), and many others have created a kind of poetry of curse words. Here is Ashbery, at the end of Girls on the Run:

Does this clinch anything? We were cautioned once, told not to venture out--
yet I'd offer this much, this leaf, to thee.
Somewhere, darkness churns and answers are riveting,
taking on a fresh look, a twist. A carousel is burning.
The wide avenue smiles.

Obviously we can get lots out of that, but it reliant on connotation more than anything else: "leaf" can be the leaves of a page, the pages of this poem we are reading; "thee" is wonderfully old fashioned and feels formal now; something is changing, becoming new; childhood is a distant memory, like an old-fashioned carousel enjoyed by children of some distant age; childhood is in danger (burning); the future welcomes us optimistically.

Here is David Mamet (I know I put this up already):

Someone made this as a joke, but there is something in it about the pure force of language:

Mamet is not quite the same thing, but he is headed in that direction.


scott91777 said...


First of all, I'd like a link to the 'fucking bible' thing... sounds hilarious and is also the kind of thing that I would use in class.

Second, on the lessening importance of 'fuck'... I really like the word fuck... like you, it was always the mother of curse words for me (except for, of course, motherfucker). So, I am always dismayed when I see it tossed around too casually... when it is less used for emphasis and becomes almost more of a tic.

For example, I will often hear students around campus uttering phrases like "Man, I fucking went to the fucking pary last night and got so fucking fucked up that I fell down the fucking staris..." This bothers me because, now, when I use 'Fuck' it has no meaning or impact. Honestly, when I swear in front of freshman students there is still the novelty of "ooooh, the teacher said a swear" but, in my sophmore lit classes, most of them can read Choke with out batting an eyelash. Before discussing the novel I'll ask, "Who was offended by the novel at one point or another?" A few students may raise their hands, not many though. I'll then say "Fair enough, there's a lot to be offended by... as for the rest of you... What the Hell is wrong with you?!?!"

Yet, on the other hand, I will occasionally get students who will complain about vulgarity. One semester, I recieved an anonymous letter in my mailbox complaing about the content of the class. Their objections were, not to Choke, which we had yet to cover (and which I do advise them that, if they are offended, I will give an alternate reading assignment) but to Walt Whitman whose poem "Spontaneous Me" (a lovely poem about wacking off) I always have a lot of fun with in class.

I responded by making a blanket statement to the class that, if my tone in covering the material seemed inappropriate, I apologize... yet I do not apologize for the material itself (This is Walt Frickin' Whitman after all).

Later on in the semester, In a response to Choke, a student wrote, "I don't understand what this has to do with American Literature or any of the other material that we have covered, except for maybe the perverted writings of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsburg"

When you get responses like that, there's nothing you can do but laugh because, at that point, they're really proving your point for you.

Sorry, turned into a bit of a rant.

James said...

2nd attempt at this - fucking work computer.

"what exactly is the "fuck" in "fuck you" mean? It really just amounts to throwing an offensive word -- regardless of meaning -- AT the person you are talking to."

There appears to be a gulf of meaning between the British use of "cunt" and the American. I think part of the reason it's less offensive over here is that it is mostly used as "fuck" is above, while Americans tend to mean it more literally.

It was actually 30 Rock that hammered it home for me: Liz Lemon says "this word is not acceptable - because there's nothing you can call a guy back. There is no male equivalent to this word." That stopped me dead in my tracks, and I thought back to the other times I'd heard "cunt" in American fiction (Deadwood, American Beauty) - it was almost always used to describe women, while in the UK it usually describes men.

You can still argue misogyny in the British usage - it's naming the female anatomy as a negative, after all - but I think this difference of intent accounts for "cunt" retaining a much higher level of taboo in the States.

RELATED: Bill Hickock's cunt-tirade to Jack McCall in Deadwood is sublime.

SEMI-RELATED: Toilet-talkin' Alec Baldwin provides by far my favourite moment in The Departed - the last line of this clip.

Todd C. Murry said...

You need to add to this some thought about foul language as the, as Omar claims, language of the oppressed. This is illuminating given the pattern of usage by various groups - I most often slip into the mode of expression in those moments when I acutely feel that between work, kids, wife, and other demands, that I've lost control of my life a bit (i.e. when I feel put upon). I think there is an American culture chicness to being an "oppressed" class, whether you are or not. People who feel like there is a "the man" (that they don't believe is them) may be more likely to curse.

I think that's what Deadwood was doing... the characters that didn't curse were the ones who wanted to retain the idea that they were still in a superior societal order, while the ones who did were either in the lower class, or had realized the class breakdown/reordering had taken place.

hcduvall said...

I sorely missed the ability to curse when I was on a trip recently, because I was somewhere where my language skills were too weak to convey what I wanted to say. I realized I used cursing as Warren Ellis calls it, as punctuation. I don't have anything erudite to say about this...but beyond cursing and about out and out accents, but touching on what you fellows are discussing, (in particular Todd) I've always loved this poem from the Scottish poet Tom Leonard. I don't think poets are the best deliverers of their material, but the poem's on the left and there's a link to him reciting it.

Jason said...

Oddly enough, I've just started watching "The Wire" on DVD. About two hours after I read this blog entry, I watched the one when two cops investigate an entire crime scene, saying nothing but variations on the word "fuck."

Synchro-fucking-nicity, baby!

Kenney said...

What frustrates me is people who refuse to curse, but instead replace those wonderful four letter words with the likes of "darn", "shucks", "shoot", "freak", and "apples". I mean, are you not conveying the same meaning by saying those words? So why not say the word you're dancing around? It seems silly to treat the words as evil.

scott91777 said...

I think Jon Stewart once voiced his frustration over Donald Rumsfeld, a man whose job was crafting war, the most brutal of all human activities, constantly peppered his speach with "Gosh, Golly" and "Darn It"

Kris Krause said...

Kenney beat me to what I most wanted to say. It's interesting because I'd say that my girlfriend swears more than I do, but when we're around her mom she'll use those silly substitute curse words instead, whereas I have no problems cursing in front of her mom if I feel the situation calls for it. I guess it's just a lingering fear of now non-existent parental authority.

As a student, I really enjoyed my professors who would throw in a curse word every now and then. My favorite was when the professor seemed a bit uncomfortable about using the word, so they said it a bit softer or even looked around for some invisible Dean or something. I always took it to be a calculated performance as opposed to any real reservations about using the word, but maybe that's due to the generation I come from.

I've always thought of curse words as words. You use them when appropriate and that's that. They shouldn't be avoided if they are the correct words to use to evoke the response you want and they shouldn't be used any more than what is needed to evoke that response. They are, after all, just words of no greater power than what we personally assign them.

Madd_Hadder said...

One of my favorite things to do when watching a PG-13 movie is look for the one use of the word "fuck." Because they only get 1 or maybe 2 times to use it, I always think great care goes into choosing that one spot. I think "Australia" used it perfectly and on the other hand "Yes Man" totally blew it. If you only get one shot, you should make it really count.

Kyle said...

Madd_Hadder: I felt Batman Begins missed a perfect opportunity to say that Gotham had "gone batshit."

Geoff: Your explanation of "for fuck's sake" is roughly the accepted one for "fuck you," though in that case it is "damn" being replaced, rather than "God."

scott91777 said...

I always that 'Fuck You' was an abbreviated version of 'Go Fuck Yourself'

Christian said...

Fuck is the most versatile English word ever.

sara d. reiss said...

I have a mouth like a sailor and always have. sometimes i feel guilty because I get twinges of the perhaps antiquated idea that it is not "ladylike." My favorite cuss word is fuck, like most, but I've found that I also will unexpectedly pepper my sentences with britishisms I picked up while living abroad. It may be weird to hear a new yorker blurt out BLOODY HELL just when it should be MOTHERFUCKER but it happens sometimes and it's satisfying to me.

I had the opportunity to TA this semester (the instructor was younger than me, which took some getting used to) and he cussed up a storm and I loved it. Maybe it's cos it was an art class, but none of the students were offended. A choice cuss word dropped at just the right time relaxed them and you could see them become visibly more open to the lecture and assignment at hand and much more relaxed. If I ever get the opportunity to teach my own class I fully intend to cuss. Maybe not AT a specific student but def in general.

fyi - I picked up my bad mouth from my family and had it LONG before I met geoff, despite what those of you who know him may think. But I did start calling it cussing instead of cursing because he made me live in Tejas.

Stefan Delatovic said...

I know that fuck has become my curse word of choice because you can really spit that sucker out.

There's something deeply satisfying about the force you can put behind that particular word.