Swearing and the public have an intimate but uneasy relationship. Eric Partridge bowdlerised fuck with an asterisk in his landmark Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, but the book was still censured fiercely for the word’s inclusion. The explosive power of the F-bomb is encoded in that very term, which along with other euphemisms allows it to be discussed in public without tainting one’s hands or mouth.
Rob Chirico’s new book Damn! A Cultural History of Swearing in Modern America casts a wry and probing eye on the colourful status of off-colour language in American culture over the last century or so, with a few forays further back and further afield. The US, he writes, is undergoing ‘a linguistic, and therefore cultural, shift that is passively opening up to an amplified inclusion of profanity’. This provides the backdrop for a lively examination of the terrain and our divergent attitudes towards swearing.
Fuck is given particular attention, treated with enthusiasm bordering on outright admiration for its remarkable versatility and variety of deployment: ‘Just the number of uses that are humorous indicates that we have attempted to throw all of our inherited guilt over the four-letter word to the four winds.’ Chirico wonders if we have ‘assimilated the F-bomb into our vocabulary just because it sounds so damned good?’ I know I have, though it’s not the only reason.
There are ample facts to engage the trivia-minded. The first fuck in mainstream American cinema (M*A*S*H, 1970) was preceded by Britain’s in 1967, spoken by Marianne Faithful in the lesser-known I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname (not What’s’name, as the book has it). The author examines swearing by Oscar winners, presidents, and other public figures, in each case describing the context and analysing the use. There are jokes too, such as the one about the twin boys who grew up ‘swearing like sailors’:
The language was once cute, but then it was obviously becoming quite exasperating. The mother mentioned this to the father, and the latter said that he would correct the problem. At dinner the first twin asked, “Hey, pop, please pass the fuckin’ potatoes.” With that, the father rose from his chair and walloped the kid. Turning to the other twin, he inquired, “And what do you want?” To this the boy nervously replied, “I don’t know what I want, but I know I don’t want those fuckin’ potatoes.”
Speaking of which, the reactionary think-of-the-children argument doesn’t square against what we know of kids’ awareness of ‘bad’ language. An anecdote from Chirico’s childhood, in which he hears his uncle release a sudden, shocking tirade in a road rage incident, neatly captures the self-censoring stalemate we impose on ourselves in shielding children from exposure to swearing: ‘just as we kids were holding our tongues in front of our elders, they were likewise holding their tongues in front of us’.
Newspapers are a perennial ground for this debate. Broadsheets need not liberally document gratuitous swears, but there’s a strong case for printing them matter-of-factly when they’re part of the news. Genteel substitutes can be obscure and make the publisher seem timid and out of date. They can also end up sounding ruder than the swear: when George W. Bush described someone as an ‘asshole’, the Washington Times called it ‘a vulgar euphemism for a rectal aperture’. Yikes. Damn! sides firmly with the free expression camp but supplies level-headed commentary on the conflict, as well as on the role and influence of assorted censors and activists.
Chirico is mindful of the three broad domains of swearing described by linguist Ruth Wajnryb: catharsis, aggression, and social connection, finding the act ‘a source of expedient release for a multitude of the most diverse emotions’. He teases out the differences between profanity, obscenity, blasphemy and vulgarity, and offers an illuminating chapter on swearing in wartime, including a note on the disconnect between the reality and its watered down depiction in TV and film, at least until relatively recently:
General George Patton was both famous and infamous for his swearing. The speech he made to his soldiers before they went into battle on D-Day was riddled with his unique style of profanity: “Let the first bastards to find out be the Goddamned Germans. Someday I want to see them raise up on their piss-soaked hind legs and howl, ‘Jesus Christ, it’s the Goddamned Third Army again and that son-of-a-fucking-bitch Patton.’” The George C. Scott film of 1970 retained some of the “shit” and “God-damns” in the speech that opened Patton, but the oration was clearly sanitized for public viewing.
The book overgeneralises a bit. Chirico rightly points out ‘the limitation of “cunt’s” flexibility’ but overreaches in saying it’s ‘used exclusively as a noun’, and in claiming women don’t use it except in extreme cases.
His assertion that ‘Europeans would never swear at an inanimate object’ is, frankly, bollocks. [Edit: The foregoing complaint is in error, for which I apologise: the author’s point concerns the use of fuck in English compared to its analogues in other languages.] Singular they and plural nouns would have helped avoid the objectionable generic he and the awkward likes of ‘to retain his or her individuality while having his or her say’. Some misspellings and grammatical lapses (fucking in ‘Stop fucking around’ is not a gerund) likewise distract.
Minor missteps aside, Damn! A Cultural History of Swearing in Modern America is a bloody entertaining contribution to the literature on swearing, and finishes nicely with a brief account of the birdie. It is likely to appeal to anyone who enjoys strong language (and Strong Language) and is available from Barnes & Noble and Amazon. There’s more information at Pitchstone Publishing, who kindly sent me a copy for review.