The expressions swear like a trooper and swear like a sailor are so common as to be cliché. But why do we swear ‘like a trooper’ or ‘like a sailor’? And what else do we swear like, idiomatically, in English and other languages?
Troopers and sailors
Swearing has long been identified with the military, source of so much slang, ribald chants, tribal insults, and other forms of strong language. Profanity would come into its own in war, aiding both bonding and catharsis: ‘an easement to the much besieged spirit’, as Ashley Montagu put it.
So routine was swearing in WWI that to omit it carried real force. In his 1930 book Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914–1918, John Brophy writes, ‘If a sergeant said, “Get your ––––ing rifles!” it was understood as a matter of routine. But if he said “Get your rifles!” there was an immediate implication of urgency and danger.’
We can assume that fucking is the censored word. The spread of fuck through war is described in Ruth Wajnryb’s Expletive Deleted (2005):
Back in 2015 I wrote about visual swears in film, where profanity appears on the screen rather than on the soundtrack. The films featured in that post were The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Blade II, Shoot ’Em Up, Runaway Train, and Sorry to Bother You. Since then I’ve gathered a fuckload more.
Visual swears can have all sorts of motivations for filmmakers: humour, attitude, character type or mood, place detail, meta-commentary, and so on. After all, they’re deliberately built into a film’s production design – unless it’s a documentary, in which case they’re still selected in the framing and editing.
The first film below happens to be a documentary, and a great one: Dark Days (2000), which explores the lives of people living in a disused New York subway tunnel. One of them labels a makeshift toilet SHIT SPOT, perhaps for both informational and comedic reasons:
It’s a couple of years since our last fuck shit stack of sweary songs, and almost five since we began this series at the Rotten Cocksuckers’ Ball. So it’s about fucking time we posted some more bawdy blues and mothercussin’ melodies.
Much of the audio below is NSFW, if that still means anything, but it straddles the range from super-profane to merely suggestive. Genre-wise it’s cheerfully all over the place, so if you don’t like one, try the next.
LaVern Baker and Jackie Wilson clearly enjoyed this party version of ‘Think Twice’:
I said you better think twice, Jackie
Before you call me a dirty ho
I’ve got news for you, little boy
Don’t fuck with me no mo’
This is a guest post by David Morris, a sub-editor and former English language teacher who holds a master’s degree in applied linguistics. David has written a few posts for Strong Language and writes about language at his blog Never Pure and Rarely Simple.
I stumbled across a website called Shit My Students Write,* on which teachers – it’s not specified what level – anonymously submit examples of their students’ writing. Most are of the type that used to be called “schoolboy howlers”. Sometimes the student’s intention is clear: “Hitler was a facetious dictator.” But I couldn’t figure out what was intended by the student who wrote:
My grandmother, when she was alive, was quite the grammar ho.
We like ass at Strong Language, and it’s an impressively productive piece of vocabulary. Recently I came across a whole new use of it – new to me, that is – in Jay Dobyns’s undercover-biker memoir No Angel. That use is unass, and it turns out to have more than one meaning.
Here it is in Dobyns’s book:
1. About a hundred miles in, we pulled off at Cordes Junction to gas up. We stopped at a Mobil and unassed. My legs and shoulders were killing me.