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):
Senator Elizabeth Warren, the planful Massachusetts Democrat, is not the presidential candidate who comes to mind when one thinks of political potty-mouths. (See Ben Zimmer’s 2019 Tucker Awards for examples of public swearing from Beto O’Rourke and Tim Ryan, who are no longer in the race, and from Donald J. Trump, who for the time being is.) So it was a bit of a surprise when Warren’s campaign adopted “LFG” as an unofficial campaign slogan and began selling “You and Me LFG” merchandise.
Blue Velvet is a film with an enduring power to unsettle viewers. Its unique brand of ‘darkness in colour’ (to borrow Pauline Kael’s phrase) features also at the level of language, with the cornball goofing of its young sweethearts set against the malevolent and compulsive profanity of Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper.
For his book Lynch on Lynch, Chris Rodley asked David Lynch if all of Frank’s fucks were in the script or if any were improvised. Lynch replied:
I had many, many, many of them written in the script, but Dennis always added more, because you get on a roll, and you can’t help yourself. And if an actor is locked into the groove so solidly, even if they say extra lines, or not exactly the way they’re written, they’re truthful. And for me Dennis was one of those guys. He always says that I could never say the word on set and that I would go to the script and say, ‘Dennis, when you say this word.’ [Laughs.] That’s not true exactly.
The filmmakers initially passed on Hopper because of his reputation, but the actor persisted and Lynch, thankfully, reconsidered. Without presuming to psychoanalyze Booth – ‘there’s enough material there for an entire conference,’ as the psychiatrist said of Basil Fawlty – we can see in his profanilect* motifs of incest, defecation, and violence, among other things. He swears inventively but also routinely, and constantly.
Enough fucking about. Let’s look at some examples. (Spoiler and trigger warnings ahoy.)
A search for ass on GDoS currently yields 137 results, and the main entry for ass (n.) has 184 subentries, with compounds like ass-bucket (‘unpopular or unimportant person’) and expressions like give up the ass (‘accede to seduction’) and up to one’s ass in alligators (‘in very serious troubles’).
Ass, in short, gets around. It’s a seriously productive-ass piece of vocabulary.
Recently, my father and I were enjoying a pleasant train ride through the Irish countryside to visit some family friends. Our conversation, as it does, went to –shit. Chickenshit, specifically.
I don’t recall what occasioned our chuckling about chickenshit, not that one ever needs a reason, but soon our chatter turned to other piles of -shit, e.g., bullshit, batshit, jackshit, the shit-list goes on. This put to mind, of course, Strong Language, where we’ve been well covered in –shit words over the years, memorably Kory Stamper on dipshit, Mark Peters on frogshit, and Ben Zimmer on ripshit.
I was curious about how English’s many species of –shits, whether they be formed by compounding or affixation, relate to one another. So, naturally, I made a matrix—a matrix of –shits—comparing them by kind and degree.