The fine art of swearing (1)
VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – I, for one, am bored to tears with articles decrying the degeneration of the English language as commonly used today. I’m even bored with my own whining about the fact that any real understanding of the language we share has lapsed to the point that you’d be hard pressed to find a high school student who could explain the usage of who vs. whom. But hand in hand with the degeneration of the elegant and beautiful employment of everyday English has been the deterioration of the elegant and beautiful swearing that was once a minor art form.
While hearing Samuel Jackson on a red carpet describe his role in Snakes on a Plane as someone who had to battle “a whole motherfucking mess of motherfucking snakes on a motherfucking plane”, provided a small frisson of satisfaction, even of transient joy, it was not unmixed with nostalgia at the passing of the truly great cursing of the past. While there are a few heroes of the curse word still fighting a rearguard action to preserve the use of the disagreeable epithet and offensive language, the truly artistic deployment of vulgarity is, sadly, disappearing.
Samuel Jackson does a wonderful job of preserving the judicious use of cursing, and we all owe a debt to Quenton Tarantino, nevertheless the sublime use of truly offensive language has lost a great deal of its lustre since the great days of oaths. It has become pedestrian and unimaginative. The bluenosed and pretentious holier than thou attitude that has prevailed since the resurgence of the conservative movement has rendered swearing dull and lacklustre; its power to shock is manifested by the very fact of its use, no longer by its artistic merit.
Five hundred years ago, during the great flowering of language of the Jacobean and Elizabethan periods, people took great delight in the language…it was far more flexible and adaptable to circumstances. Words were often invented to suit the occasion and often those words became part of the lexicon; Shakespeare alone invented somewhere between 800 and 1700 words, or at least was the first to publish them. Many were by changing verbs into nouns adjectives into verbs and vice versa, and a great many he just invented whole cloth because they were needed and his infallible ear felt them to be suitable to his purpose. Just a few examples of Shakespearean words are: GROVEL, from Henry VI Part II; SWAGGER, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and one of my favourites, RANT, from Hamlet.
But more even than inventing words, the Elizabethans revelled in using words in imaginative ways to deride, insult, and abuse. In the movie Predator, Arnold Schwarzennegger’s character, Dutch, said to the eponymous alien, “You’re one ugly motherfucker!” Contrast that with the Elizabethan insult, “Thy vile canker-blossomed countenance curdles milk and sours beer.” Now that’s harsh. Whether that would have been more or less effective at hurting the predator’s feelings isn’t really the point here. The significance is that swearing today is merely perfunctory; it can be, and once was, gloriously, creatively, offensive.
We call it swearing because originally to swear was something specific, not the mere use of proscribed words. In Victorian novels, uncouth characters are said to utter “loathsome oaths”; that is swearing in its purest sense…to take an evil oath or to swear to do something in a way that would be considered sinful. That was the purest contravention of the Fourth Commandment…taking the Lord’s name in vain. It was wrong, presumably because swearing before God that you intended to do something you ultimately wouldn’t was a waste of His time; taking His name in vain, in other words.
That was something subtly different from cursing. Cursing meant the wishing of something evil upon someone or a family, country, group, place, or anything at which the curser was sufficiently pissed off. Perhaps because we have lost our belief in the efficacy of formal cursing, in modern times decent cursing is generally only done for the comedic value. Johnny Carson, in character as Carnac the Magnificent deployed a new curse for Ed McMahon each time the classic sketch was deployed. For some of us, that was always the high moment of the routine. A few examples of Carson’s version of Middle Eastern curses:
May a crazed weightlifter clean and jerk your sister.
May a camel with a weak kidney condition find your hope chest
May a bag of Pop Rocks explode in your shorts.
May the winds of the Sahara blow a desert scorpion up your turban.
May a swarm of gay chiggers open a disco on your grandfather.
May you fall asleep under a camel with postnasal drip.
May the swami of Baghdad squat on your fez.
May a weird doctor join you at the hump of a camel.
May an evil genie put splinters in your Aurora tissue.
May a carsick mongoose change the color of your seats.
May a crazed sultan force you into mouth-to-mouth resuscitation with a sick lizard.
May a camel chip float in your martini.
May a weird customs inspector discover a secret compartment in your sister.
May you be forced to visit a near-sighted proctologist.
May a weird holy man light a Roman candle in your pants.
May a crazed furniture refinisher stain your sister’s hope chest.
May a diseased yak squat in your hot tub
Swearing has now become an entirely different and much lesser art form. It is no longer an extravagant and creative but futile and graphic wish; it isn’t a poetic and over-the-top description of someone’s less attractive qualities; it has been reduced to the insertion of expletives into a conversation at more or less random intervals.
The simple expression of a proscribed word is considered swearing or cursing today. Simply saying a word that society has deemed unacceptable has people either up in arms, covering their children’s ears, or falling down laughing. George Carlin in 1972 famously had us all doing all three. Carlin had a signature routine, The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television, that drew its power from the sheer offensiveness of the words and his explanations and examples of their usage. Over the years the words change and some had to be eliminated from the list as they grew more common and tolerable and were replaced by others, but the original and still most enjoyably offensive list contains these expletives: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Much of the humour of the bit came from the repetition of the words until they lost any meaning, an almost Zen-like exercise, reducing to absurdity the outrage evoked by those meaningless sounds.
Lenny Bruce took aim at the outrage junkies who find certain sounds people make so offensive that they would have them jailed for uttering them. But Lenny addressed the meaning of those words and exposed his accusers to ridicule for the absurdity of their obsession with those very words. On trial for obscenity, he insisted that the arresting officer say out loud the specific word for which he had been arrested in his act. At first the cop was reluctant to say it, but at the insistence of the judge, he acknowledged that the word was “cocksucker”. From then on, throughout the trial and particularly during Lenny’s testimony, the word “cocksucker” was repeated, including by the defendant, so often that it became hysterically funny.
During Lenny’s testimony, he disputed the notion that the word was obscene at all. The prosecution insisted that is was obscene because, as he explained, it denoted a certain obscene homosexual act. Lenny feigned astonishment and explained to the prosecutor and the court and everyone in it that he had no idea if the word “cocksucker” referred to a homosexual act; what he was certain of however, was that he was heterosexual, his wife was heterosexual, that she was a cocksucker, and that he probably wouldn’t have married her if she couldn’t reasonably be described as a cocksucker. He even speculated that giving up being a cocksucker might be cause for divorce.
Years later Lenny said that he had thoroughly enjoyed watching how much all the court officials enjoyed saying, “cocksucker” with impunity and how, once the dam was broken, they all said it at every opportunity. But most of all, what he found funny was that the judge found him guilty after solemnly explaining that some words had appropriate times and places to be said out loud; apparently a nightclub patronised exclusively by adults was inappropriate for the word to be uttered even once in the context of a criticism of society, whereas a staid and formal courtroom was a reasonable place for one after another official to blurt it out with reckless abandon.
So now swearing has become little more than seeing who has the temerity to utter one of society’s verboten words. The only real humour comes, not from the artistic flourishing of a creative curse or insult, but from the situation in which the word is employed. It is the incongruity of the circumstance or the shock value of the selected audience that gives us the laugh. The humour in that incongruity is exemplified in the link I included because of the intended audience. It ain’t much, but it’s all we have left of the grand tradition in the English language of insults, curses, and swearing.
As a final note to this, the first reflection I am posting on swearing and related linguistic transgressions, I want to say that I have read that bedtime story to my son since I first ran across it, and continue to do so whenever he asks me for it. And the more I think of it, the more it simply baffles me that anyone could find anything fundamentally wrong with exposing JJ to that charming book. And to those who disagree…
 Go the Fuck to Sleep, Written by Adam Mansbach, Illustrated by Ricardo Cortes