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.)
As far as strong language goes, sausage party is hardly spicy. It’s a mild slang term for a social gathering in which men greatly outnumber women, usually expressed with a sense of bro-ish disappointment by its male members, er sausages. But a new adult computer-animated movie, Sausage Party, is getting a big rise out of its ham-handed innuendo.
Snakes on a Plane was, if nothing else, a success of marketing over, well, every other aspect of filmmaking. Even those who resisted watching it are likely to be familiar with a line from Samuel L. Jackson, so successfully did it percolate into pop culture (video NSFW; assume the same throughout):
It’s a good line and a great delivery, but family-friendly it ain’t. So as a happy consequence it was dubbed for TV into the wonderful non sequitur ‘monkey-fightin’ snakes on this Monday-to-Friday plane’ (and with fuckin’ softened to freakin’):
Finally I was called as a witness in my own behalf. I took the stand and Mr. Bendich examined me.
Q. Mr. Bruce, Mr. Wollenberg yesterday said (to Dr. Gottlieb) specifically that you had said, “Eat it.” Did you say that?
A. No, I never said that.
Q. What did you say, Mr. Bruce?
A. What did I say when?
Q. On the night of October fourth.
MR. WOLLENBERG: There’s no testimony that Mr. Wollenberg said that Mr. Bruce said, “Eat it,” the night of October fourth, if your honor please.
THE COURT: The question is: What did he say?
THE WITNESS: I don’t mean to be facetious. Mr. Wollenberg said “Eat it.” I said “Kiss it.”
MR. BENDICH: Do you apprehend there is a significant difference between the two phrases, Mr. Bruce?
A. “Kissing it” and “eating it,” yes, sir. Kissing my mother goodbye and eating my mother goodbye, there is a quantity of difference.
—Lenny Bruce, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People
If there was ever an example of a manipulation and exploitation of the context in which words were intentionally made to be confusing, that would be it. Taken out of context, both kiss and eat are entirely benign. We do them all the time, although we should probably be doing more of the former and less of the latter. Taken in context, Bruce’s use of “kissing it” had the exact same intention as “eating it.” In no way was the verb “kissing,” as Bruce used it here, similar to the kissing he might bestow upon his mother. In fact, had it been a French court, “kissing it” would have been even more derogatory that “eating it” since the French use “baiser”—to kiss—as a correlative to our “fucking.” Calling someone a “baiseur” is tantamount to us calling him a “fucker.” Direct swearing in public was severely frowned upon in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and it was subject to fine or even imprisonment. Satirists like Bruce therefore often couched their expletives in careful substitution of double entendre. I say “often,” because it was also Bruce’s custom to shoot straight from the hip with unvarnished four-letter words—and longer. Whether it was his rants against government or his playful dissecting of words and phrases, I would go on to add that if there was one individual in the last hundred years who altered the way we speak in public, it was Lenny Bruce.
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.