AND I SWEAR

People who know me in Real Life ask me two questions about Gin and Tacos fairly regularly. I'll get to the other one when I'm feeling more introspective. First, though, let's tackle "Why do you swear so much?" It's a more interesting question, at least to me, than it appears to be on the surface.

The shortest answer is that it's the internet (which permits swearing, I believe) and this format allows one to write whatever words one chooses. That's not very satisfying.

Another totally valid but unsatisfying reason is that I swear a lot when I'm talking, so why not while writing.

The more interesting answer is that in print there are few things more idiotic and puritan than writing "f**k!" and thinking that it is somehow better, more acceptable, or different than "fuck!" If everyone who sees it knows exactly which word "f**k" refers to and says it inside their head when they read that bowdlerized version, then what constructive purpose is served by replacing letters with asterisks or their equivalent?

subtle

We see things like the title of this book more and more often. What is the point? If you've made the creative and editorial decision to put the word "fuck" in the title of the book, then put it in the title of the book. And contrary to whatever silly delicacy you think you're accomplishing by writing "F*ck" instead, I have surprising news for you: the title still has "fuck" in it.

The less obvious part of the issue, though, is why words considered profanity are necessary from a stylistic or rhetorical perspective. Strictly speaking they aren't, of course. The only words that could be called "necessary" are those with no synonyms, so there are always alternatives. I suppose I pick those words when they seem like the most appropriate means of communicating not just the idea but the tone that I want to communicate. What's wrong with that? We're adults here.

I often think back to this interview exchange:

Q: "Why all the infamous language, then?"

A: "Infamous language, are you joking? I speak nothing but the fucking English language. That’s the only thing I’ve been brought up with, and if that’s infamous, then tough shit."

Back in 1977 there was an obvious component of shock value to the choice to say Dirty Words on radio and TV. I think we can agree that there is very little shock value to be gleaned from swearing in 2016; no one but a small child or the most uptight prude bats an eye at an Infamous Four Letter Word anymore. The former will soon get used to it, and the latter have minds and worldviews so small that we really can't concern ourselves with their thought processes.

So, seeing nothing wrong with talking the way normal people talk, it all boils down to using the words that best convey what I feel. It isn't easy to convey feeling in cold text, and anything that advances that goal is worth considering. I can tell you something is ridiculous but goddamn ridiculous paints a better picture, does it not? Calling something nonsense or describing it as an empty or evasive statement is sometimes going to be the best strategy; in others the optimal choice is to call it bullshit. So be it.

Presuming there aren't many underage children reading anything I write, I don't have any problem using words that normal adults understand and use regularly. I see nothing "unprofessional" about it, and some people will disagree with that. To me, insulting the reader's intelligence with asterisks or subjecting them to bland, stilted, colorless writing is unprofessional. "Appropriate" is a nebulous and moving target, and the core of what I believe is that if the world can be full of hateful, poorly written, and / or totally illogical rhetoric considered acceptable and appropriate for mass consumption then a few salty nouns and adjectives should be the least of anyone's concern.

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65 Responses to “AND I SWEAR”

  1. Major Kong Says:

    You never really learn to swear until you learn to drive.

  2. seniorscrub Says:

    Fucking A, Ed.

  3. Townsend Harris Says:

    For you youngsters out there, Tallulah Bankhead or Dorothy Parker supposedly teased Norman Mailer when his publisher, Rinehart, substituted "fug" for "fuck" in his 1948 novel "The Naked and the Dead":
    "So, you're the young man who doesn't know how to spell 'fuck'."

  4. Anubis Bard Says:

    Other English speaking countries put Americans to shame when it comes to cursing. Probably because for so long – in our our quaint Puritan way – we relied on the magic of "infamous words" rather than the artistry that an Irishwoman or an Australian has to bring to bear to leave a mark. I read this blog because the author sometimes unloads with real cursing – with or without the fucks and shits.

  5. John Danley Says:

    Steven Pinker concurs. Fuck 'em all.

  6. AstroBio Says:

    Funny, I never noticed.

  7. wnsrfr Says:

    AtroBio, I never noticed either…I did live in Vermont for 10 years though, where it is impossible to finish a sentence without a fucking-A or how-the-fuck and so on.

  8. Net Denizen Says:

    Tim Minchin beat you to part of your particular observation, btw. Great minds think alike and all that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNc7xMlkO88

  9. mothra Says:

    Ha. I had a friend whose dad used to use "goddamn" in every sentence. Went on the trip with them and came back doing the same thing. Goddamn it.

  10. Andrew Laurence Says:

    I swear a lot, and so does my wife, but it's considered very inappropriate at my workplace and I try to keep it contained so as to stay employed. My experience has been that a wide variety of adults object to it, and they don't all seem like prudes.

  11. Droppy Says:

    Maybe I'm a prude and so among the benighted "minds and worldviews so small that we really can't concern ourselves with their thought processes," but I don't particularly like to swear and I don't like to hear it. But I think it is because of its ubiquity rather than its shock value. Indeed, because of its ubiquity, it no longer has shock value. I think it is a symptom of two things I don't like (but I don't like tattoos, either – that doesn't mean I think they should be illegal or that people who get them should be punished.) First, it is lazy. If you want to emphasize a point, "fuck" in some form is the easiest and least thoughtful way to do it. Second, (here's the prude part!) it's a symptom of the coarsening of our social interactions. We don't care enough to speak carefully or kindly or to worry about the sounds we make in others' hearing. I think we ought to.

  12. quixote Says:

    There's a linguistic term for it which has fallen through the interstices of my mind. The gist was swear words act as intensifiers. They're a way of saying "I really mean this, goddamit."

    There was a time when saying, "God!" was blasphemy, so that added punch to the language.

    Then "damn" and "hell" took a turn because God didn't sound like much after a while.

    Given that there are plenty of people who can't speak without sprinkling "fuck" like birdseed, I think we're already past peak fuck.

    It'll be interesting to see what the next intensifier(s) is (are). Will it manage to be even more misogynist than wishing rape on everybody? (Because "fuck" certainly isn't used in the sense of "Oh, go have fun and get laid.") We've used up religion, we're in the process of using up the Anglo-Saxon terms for bodily functions. We're going to have to find something!

  13. other bill Says:

    Most people have only enough intellect and/or attention span to just touch the surface of a subject (or argument/perspective/viewpoint). You can put words in front of someone, but you can't make them understand what you're actually trying to communicate. Focus on choice of words usually means a lack engagement with the point of the writing. Just ignore those kinda fucks.

  14. jon Says:

    I have similar opinions regarding the word "nigger". We know what it is. We are not being saved from evil by not spelling it out. I understand using "n-word" or even "n bomb", which is okay. That's avoiding the word, which is perfectly acceptable. Laudable, even. But I think it's ridiculous to see "n***er" or similar stuff.

    It's not Beetlejuice. It's not as if typing it three times will bring back demon clowns and slavery. And even with the incredible racist history of the word, its use and context are what make it evil, not its mere existence.

    We aren't a bunch of fucking children.

  15. BruceJ Says:

    One of the glories, nay the prime fucking glory of Deadwood was Al Swearingen (such an onomatopoetic name!) and his magnificent command of the english language in all it's variety.

  16. BruceJ Says:

    @mothra. My wife and I had a frined whose nickname was 'fucking tony' because, yes, EVERY sentence had to be punctuated somewhere thus.

    @quixote George Carlin's great Seven Words monologue touches on this, too.

  17. Emerson Dameron Says:

    In defense of Mark Manson, here's what happened in his case.

    1. He published this essay on the internet. It contains a lot of profanity, all typed out, which is central to its appeal:
    https://markmanson.net/not-giving-a-fuck

    2. The essay became wildly popular.

    3. Someone at a publishing house was scouring the internet looking for something popular to cash in on. That person found the essay and reached out to Manson with a book deal.

    4. Someone else at the publishing house, presumably higher up, liked the basic idea but thought the book might get better visibility in family-oriented stores, and would probably sell more copies, if it leveraged the appeal of a self-help book called "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck" without spelling out the word "fuck" on the jacket.

    5. All of the Relevant Stakeholders decided that this was a compromise they would make, in the interest of increasing their profit, even though some of them probably found it a bit silly.

    Retail stores and broadcast media are in the awkward position of wanting to sell "fuck"s to people who want them without wanting to field complaints from other people who don't want to be reminded of them. Parents, mostly. It's the parents' fault.

  18. Emerson Dameron Says:

    @jon –

    I refuse to touch that one or others like it, only because I know that the sight and sound of it causes significant pain to people who don't deserve it, for reasons I can't fully comprehend.

    I care much less about the feelings of people who freak out over sex, excrement, sky gods, and other silly things. I'm willing to piss them off just for emphasis.

  19. Deborah Says:

    I'm a proper little old lady, once at work before I retired I let loose with a roaring, "JESUS FUCKING CHRIST" when I couldn't get my computer to do something I wanted it to. The place went dead silent, you could hear a pin drop, and it stayed that way for a bit. After that, no one treated me the same.

  20. Safety Man! Says:

    @jon

    I've often wondered the same. To me, it would seem that tiptoeing around gives the insult more weight than it deserves. When you look at the entomology of a lot of racial slurs, they're pretty dumb, imo. Seriously, with Latin roots, does the N-word not translate out to basically just mean black-colored person? How the hell did we twist that into an uber insult that-must-not-be-named, even this long after the Civil War?

  21. Wayne Ruffner Says:

    I'm always amazed to see normal- & hyper-violent things on TV and the coincident cussing is beeped out. WTF?

  22. Redleg Says:

    I explain my use of salty language in a couple of different ways.

    1. Using such words as shit, fuck, hell, damn, etc., should not be taboo when they are used to accentuate a strong feeling about something.

    2. Using those same words in an abusive way towards another person should legitimately be challenged by the offended party. For example, calling a person a dumb fuckface to their face, in order to insult them, is not normally kosher unless the person has done something to merit this.

    3. If I smash my thumb with a hammer, I am going to say fuck or goddamnit or shit. Anyone who would say fudge, or goshdarnit or poop after smashing their thumb is not a person I would associate with.

    4. I try to limit my use of salty words so that they retain some shock value when needed.

    5. I try not swear around my children or family. I don't give a flying fuck about your own family though. (Just kidding about this last point).

  23. Sarah Says:

    Swearing is real life. You're real. That's why you're so goddamn relatable. You're the fucking best at being your weird brand of you.

  24. Skepticalist Says:

    When I got out of the hospital I heard every day: "You really looked fucked up."

    Nothing compares to it.

  25. jharp Says:

    Long have felt the word fuck is one of the most versatile words in the English language.

  26. Emerson Dameron Says:

    @jharp:

  27. jharp Says:

    I might add that I dropped using the word cocksucker in a derogatory way. For the obvious reason there is nothing wrong with being one.

    Cunt, however, the most vile word of all, I still use.

  28. democommie Says:

    When I hit my thumb with a hammer, put too much sugar in my coffee, miss the wastebasket with a fade–away, get to the bus stop –as the bus turns left, forget to send in a credit card payment on time, burn the toast, anycetera…"Goddamnedson-of-a-bit motherfucking whore, bastard, cocksucking p.o.s." or some variant is what comes out. I asked a shrink about it few years back and he said that as long as I tried to keep it out the earshot of others it was not a serious problem.

    I have managed to offend a number of sanctimonious KKKristians in this life; folks who have no problem with actually doing horrible shit unto other so long as they don't hurt Baby JESUS feelings by usING BAD words. Well, we all have our guilty pleasures–fuck those assholes.

  29. Death Panel Truck Says:

    If I smash my thumb with a hammer, I am going to say fuck or goddamnit or shit. Anyone who would say fudge, or goshdarnit or poop after smashing their thumb is not a person I would associate with.

    One of my fondest childhood memories: When I was about seven or eight years old, I was in the garage with my dad, and he was building something out of wood. He hit his thumb with his hammer, and shouted out, "WELL, GODDAMN ME TO FUCKING HELL!" I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever heard. It led to a lifelong habit of using profanity on a regular basis. My mother was a past master of the art of slinging profanity, and she was a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, one of the most conservative denominations in America. My wife is the daughter of a Disciples of Christ pastor, and sometimes I think she swears more than I do.

  30. Jesse B Says:

    I'm pretty sure Ed has said he doesn't like the Big Lebowski, which I don't understand, because this:

    https://youtu.be/CmACDeyYmBg

  31. mago Says:

    I'm in accord with any of the above who say, "what's the kerfuffle about, who gives a shit?"

  32. Dean Says:

    Is this your way of telling the readership when you instruct us in "About gin and tacos" to "Please enjoy, please comment, and please spread the word," that the word is not "please," but "fuck"?

  33. canuckistani Says:

  34. Philippa Says:

    BUT WON'T ANYONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?

    Someone's got to teach them to swear properly. Someday they'll hit their thumbs with hammers, or drive in East Coast traffic. We must all do our bit by modeling the correct and effective use of expletives.

    @jharp – you're excused if you're English and use that word primarily to refer to men.

  35. geoff Says:

    Weirdly, Charles Pierce over at Esquire, a magazine/ website presumably aimed at adult (OK, adolescent) men due to their many clickbaity photos of young women in swimsuits and underwear, writes "fk" instead of "fuck". E.g. "ratfker" in place of "ratfucker". My guess is Charlie's so old school that he still can't quite let loose after decades writing for "serious" outlets, but who knows?

  36. Wim Says:

    I spent my middle teens slaving for my father as a muleskinner, and 'fuck' is one of the mildest terms in my lexicon, and perhaps the most frequently used. A girl I once dated said she realized she'd spent too much time around me when her mother wanted her to do some niggling and onerous chore and said girl brightly cried 'Fuck a bunch of that!' The ability to swear in long-form without repetition served me very well later in life when I had to direct student archaeologists in field operations, though sometimes there was confusion if habit led me to describe someone as jug-headed and lop-eared.

  37. Bridget McCurry Says:

    Lalochezia.

  38. Paul Says:

    Yeah I learned to cuss from my dad while he worked on cars. I was simply amazed when he turned a wrench and a random bastard or bitch would come out. How could he know a bastard part from a bitch part? It looked just like a nut on a screw to me. He also explained how foul language was used in the military too. He was stationed in Japan after WWII and a Japanese worker once asked him, "Why do all the white soldiers say shit and all the black soldiers say motherfucker?"

  39. Mike Says:

    I spent 24 years on active duty in the U.S. Navy, so let’s just say I specialize in swearing. I’m an expert. So I can tell you without equivocation that the word “fuck” is the single most important word in spoken language (where it exists, anyway). It adds importance and tone to any statement where no other word possibly can, and can convey every human emotion from love to hate and everything in between. From experience – and this is a no-shitter – if you want to get a sailor to understand that the instructions you are about to give them will help them accomplish a job or sequence of evolutions are important, and they MUST be understood and followed exactly unless they want to kill themselves and possibly (probably) others, then “Fuck” is your best friend. Treat it with respect.

    Oh yeah, great fucking post, Ed.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSEXgQ58AoM

  40. Robert Walker-Smith Says:

    My father swore about as often as solar eclipses occurred. I hadn't realized how much it affected me until I was at work (VA hospital), trying to [do something] with my then boss. Great guy, career USAF. Hit a problem with the computer, and muttered, "Bugger a badger!" He was gobsmacked – not by the phrase but because he'd never heard me use 'bad' language before.

    Even now, with fifteen years of fatherhood behind me, I swear about as often as my dad did. If I'd ever heard him say 'motherfucker' or 'goddamnit' it would have been like seeing him fight Ming the Merciless in the rumpus room.

  41. Skipper Says:

    "I can tell you something is ridiculous but goddamn ridiculous paints a better picture, does it not?"

    If you want to take that to the superlative, it's "ri-goddam-diculous"

    @Major Kong — I worked with a guy who drove his son to daycare every day before work. This was in Boston traffic. One day the guy had an offsite meeting and his wife had to drive the son to daycare. Halfway through the ride, the kid said "Mommy, where are all the fuckers today?"

    @jon Says — someone, I don't remember who, wrote a pretty good piece on "n***er." He noted that words are only tokens that represent concepts. His claim was that using "n***er" is dishonest. "You won't write the word, but you make me say it in my head." And I agree with you. It's not some magical term that will make bad things happen. Obviously, you shouldn't use it as disparaging remark about someone, but you should be able to use it in discussions about the term and language in general.

  42. Kaleberg Says:

    I think women invented swearing to get through childbirth. Apparently women get an even bigger kick / analgesic effect from using swear words than men do. There is a real effect. The words are just there to let one invoke it.

    I have nothing against writing with a lot of swear words, but it can get lazy. Besides, one well placed swear word often works better than an entire essay full of them. It's like the sloppy movies where they can't develop the plot, so they just kill people or blow things up.

    P.S. It's funny when conventions change. In the Riddle of the Sands one of the characters says "… we want a man like this Kaiser, who doesn't wait to be kicked, but works like a nigger for his country, and sees ahead.'" I doubt the Obama team was thinking of a slogan like this.

  43. doug Says:

    All good. Skipper great commute story. funny…

  44. Lalo Khezia Says:

    OK, thanks for my new 'nym. Well worth
    checking out gin & tacos every day.

  45. Chicagojon2016 Says:

    For me it goes back to Lennon's Working Class Hero and the DJ that defended playing it with: "The People of Washington DC are sophisticated enough to accept the occasional four-letter word in context, and not become sexually aroused, offended, or upset."

    Lennon chose the right qualifier when he sang 'you're all fucking peasants as far as I can see"

  46. Skepticalist Says:

    I don't remember who said it nor the exact quote but it went something like this: "He uses profanity like a great artist uses oils."

    I probably fucked it up though.

  47. lizzie Says:

    One of my favorite profanity-related stories: The young daughter of a friend of mine, who was very upset at being told to go to bed, came back out into the living room and stood there for a few minutes with a foul look on her face, and then shouted, "GREEDY!!" and stomped out of the room. We surmised that she felt a primal need to swear, but didn't know any actual swear words, so she said the worst word she knew.

  48. mago Says:

    Write like you talk is the main thing.

  49. mago Says:

    And watch your speech.

  50. Tim H. Says:

    Norman Spinrad had something to say on the topic:
    http://normanspinradatlarge.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-power-of-dirty-words.html

    Not that it bothers me too much when I'm in a place where language is frowned on, English speakers have a wealth of options.

  51. JustRuss Says:

    @Paul: Yeah, listening to my dad curse while he was turning a wrench is one of my fondest memories. I generally keep my cursing to a minimum, but it's open season when the car's up on jacks.

  52. Jen Says:

    @Skepticalist: maybe from A Christmas Story? Here's a quote from Ralphie, regarding the word "fuck": "Now, I had heard that word at least ten times a day from my old man. He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master."

  53. sluggo Says:

    I have three things to say:

    A. The louder I swear, the less that it hurts.
    2. I had a boss that used to call me "scumfuck'
    D. I had a minor but painful injury when was twelve, a huge silver shoved under my fingernail, so bad bad that Mom never said anything about turning all the air in the house blue. I hope something like that happens to my old boss ten times over

  54. geoff Says:

    http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015-12-17/study-people-who-swear-more-are-smarter-have-larger-vocabulary

    Just gonna fucking leave this here.

  55. Skepticalist Says:

    I think you're right Jen. "A Christmas Story" sounds right to me.

    One of my bosses used "Shitfuck" as a single word. 872 times a day.

    My Uncle used "rectal aperture" and "fecal register" in place of the more familiar terms.

  56. April Says:

    I use swear words in normal conversation with my daughters or friends, but something weird happens when I walk into school. Those words wouldn't come out of my mouth even if I tried. Obviously this a good thing, but, still, it's weird.

  57. mago Says:

    @April. It's called speaking to your audience.

  58. Dave Dell Says:

    I hadn't noticed that you swear at all. Hmm…

  59. JTC Says:

    The book whose cover you show is quite good. It was began its life as a blog post here:
    https://markmanson.net/not-giving-a-fuck

    And from another (anti) self-help book I read recently entitled "Fuck Feelings" (which, sadly, also self censored on the cover):
    "Given life's cruelty and unfairness, Fuck Feelings believes profanity is a source of comfort, clarity, and strength. It helps to express anger without blame, to be tough in the face of pain, and to share determination without sentimentality."

    That defense of profanity in the introduction gave me high hopes for the rest of the book. I was disappointed. The Mark Manson book was much better.

  60. anotherbozo Says:

    All through childhood I was a religious prude. No profanity, ever, beyond "oh, crud." Then I tried tennis. And pool. And golf. Classmates were beyond amused. My mouth was beyond all control, like my hand-eye coordination.

    The additional vocabulary didn't help my athleticism.

    As to Charlie Pierce at Esquire Politics, I would bet his graphic figleafing has to do with an editorial policy beyond his immediate control. A d**n shame, I say.

    Ed here is so good a writer he knows to use epithets strategically, for emphasis in just the right damn places. As an artist uses oils.

  61. April Says:

    @ David Dell….Hmmmmmm never really thought about it, but I guess I don't swear much in my writings, either. Except texts again to daughters or friends.

    Maybe I'll fucking try harder in the goddamn future?

  62. Richard Danison Says:

    Not really posting a response, just wanted to wrap things up. You banned me yesterday from your Facebook page for saying the Cardinals suck. At least, that's what I thought. But I realized you couldn't possible be that thin skinned, it had to be something else. The only thing I could come up with is that you were being sarcastic and I missed it. It's all good, I probably deserved it for not keeping up. Best of luck Ed, hope you don't kill yourself.

  63. Jado Says:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgOEu3lgv_Q

    Obscenity is relative

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