The Proper Use of Profanity

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About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is an Editor-at-Large at Good Men Project, and possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.


  1. “Possibly a cartoon character from the 1930s,”<—- love it.

    I agree in the poetry and power of well placed curse bombs. It does relieve the tension in difficult situations. I just like to reserve it for special occasions: amazing sex, fights with the ex-husband, etc. But your point has definitely been taken :0)

  2. Nice. I especially like your point on rhythm. I came here as an immigrant when I was a teenager, got into English lit & poetry, and that’s how I learned to curse – by stringing together enough strong words to form comebacks that had a good threatening cadence, even if I didn’t always understand what they meant at the time. As a young awkward girl who got picked on I found that being able to spit fire would often save me from further harrassments.

  3. Apparently we cannot use foul language in comments on this post to give examples. Shame.

  4. AnonymousDog says:

    I think a distinction has to be drawn swearing and cursing on the one hand, and vulgarisms and scatological terms on the other. Each have their proper uses.

  5. Hazel Stone says:

    My husband tells me that it was my creative cursing that first attracted him to me. I was an engineering post-grad and he wandered into my lab looking for a colleague of mine. He caught me cursing at a piece of equipment (and in absentia the technician that was supposed to maintain it) that was refusing to behave. I can’t remember exactly what I said but I’m told it went on for several minutes, contained remarkable few repeats and got increasingly biologically unlikely. He claims he actually learnt a few words from me but seeing as how’s he’s Irish and they swear as punctuation I refuse to believe that.

  6. I salute your virtuosity. Would love to see a follow-up article on minced oaths, e.g. for blowing off steam in front of the kids.

  7. Deanna Ogle says:

    I absolutely loved this piece. I’ve come back to it a couple of times, adding in new words. I almost am tempted to bookmark it on my phone to use when the situation calls for it… But I think your point is that if I have to wait for my phone’s browser to load in order to properly insult something, I’ve already lost. ;)

  8. C Ussword says:

    Is it just me, am I the only one hearing the voice of Christopher Walken doing a reading of this artcle as I read it?.

  9. I agree with AnonymousDog. Scatological references or any words having to do with body parts or bodily functions are examples of neither swearing or cursing. They’re obscenities. Profanity has to have a religious element, and the two main types, as ADog said, are swearing (or oaths) and cursing (very broadly defined to include obscenities and foul language by modern dictionaries). The common G–d— is a curse, as is “go to hell.” Oaths must have an explicit or implied “by” in them. For example, the much misunderstood, at least by Americans, British oath “bloody,” being a centuries-in-the-making compression of “By our lady,” or “I swear by the Virgin Mary.” An oath. Thus, profanity. Similarly, the old-fashioned oath “zounds,” a compression of “by God’s wounds,” wounds originally pronounced as rhyming with “rounds.” Often people make the mistake of lumping all these words together as “expletives,” which is generally incorrect and probably got a boost in misunderstanding from the published Nixon Whitehouse tapes. An expletive is simply a word or phrase that carries no meaning, the most common being the clause openers “it is,” “there is,” “there are,” etc. The F-word in in its present participial form, that is, ending in -ing (or in’) and the GD word common expletives, and you hear some people use them multiple times in the same sentence, sometimes, it seems, after every other word. How is this possible? Because they’re truly using them as expletives, so they carry no meaning, thus not affecting the meaning or structure of the sentence. They can be used anywhere; syntactically they’re the most mobile words in the language. Use the F-word as a verb, on the other hand, and suddenly it’s not an expletive since it does contain meaning.

  10. Outstanding piece. I work in a newsroom, where cursing is commonplace and some, not all, of my colleagues could use some of the tips you provide.

    Also, not to be a grammar Nazi, but “kinda” isn’t a word. It’s “kind of.” But never mind — still a good piece.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Prescriptive grammarian!

      If you use a lot of curse words, you’re not allowed to also be a prescriptive grammarian. ;)

  11. When you say “English is perhaps the most exquisitely expressive language on Earth, with a working vocabulary twice the size of most languages,” you’re wrong. Spanish is more expressive and more exquisite.

    • Valter Viglietti says:

      And what about French?
      I remember a scene in Matrix Reloaded (the 2nd one), where the Merovingian curses in French; it sounded like art. :)

      Great piece, Noah. It was about time, for the GMP, being so NOT politically correct. :cool:

  12. Apparently, there is a wrong way to use “Cumdumpster”

    Best used in reference to an orifice that is a regular receptacle for semen.

  13. I know that many consider cunt to be a bridge too far, a cussword beyond a certain pale, and I respect their restraint even if I do not always share it. Some feminists decry the word as a gendered insult (which, to be fair, it is, along with its lesser cousins bitch and whore),…
    I wonder if they feel the same way when freely tossing dick around in regular conversation.

    I have to say that over the last few years I’ve changed the way I swear. I used to just put a lot of enthusiasm and effort into it (like I’m going to go Super Sayain if I can say it loud enough). But now I actually lighten my voice and say it more softly. Almost like I’m trying to weave the curse words into the sentence in such a way that the listener won’t even care (or maybe not notice) that the words are there.

  14. Zoom Strange says:

    I was pretty fucking disappointed to see a yawning gap in this discourse – whatever happened to the proper use of arsehole (I’d use a question mark but the cat has chewed the keyboard cable and swallowed our punctuation) Arseholes are a universal tool and a much higher grade of sauce than the always lame sounding “ass” – what is so evocative about a crappy donkey – when the simple addition of a hole at the end is such a powerful upgrade (question mark) I agree “you crappy donkey” has it’s place, perhaps in the Minced section more than a few of us are pining for – there, of course I would expect to find myself labelled as and “Icehole” for even bringing this up, but that’s the kind of prick I am, you knob-jockeys.

  15. Excellent piece! I’m a journalist and English teacher, and though I have to forbid my students from using words like these, I’m with you: there’s definitely an art to cussing well. I’m posting a link to this article on my blog.
    BTW – do you have Irish in your bloodline?

  16. Raised in a household where curse words were the norm, if not a celebrated way of life, and often joked to childhood friends about how I’d apparently learned from one of the very best in the field. Aunt Betty. In no time at all I became a teacher myself and indirectly offered a few effective words, here, there, everywhere.

    BUT after reading this fine article I now realize I could’ve been one of The Great Ones had I’d only knew about Alliteration and Assonance.

  17. Almost forgot to mention how LOUD I laughed at this point:

    “Except in rare cases, it is inadvisable to repeat specific words too close together. While there is a time and a place for calling someone a fucking fuck, the fact is that screaming “Shitbastard shithole piece of shit!” at an inanimate object, while probably called for, just makes you sound like you only know one swear word.”

  18. Someone just pointed this article out to me, and I was tickled to see it. Well done.

    It’s a subject that has always been near and dear to my own heart. (See? “Cursing: An Editorial Style Guide”

  19. i didn’t know that “fuck” was a five letter word. look at the pic – F***K. pretty shit, if you ask me -

  20. never ate soap says:

    There absolutely is an art to using curses and obscenities; the creative combinations, the rhythmn patterns. I would argue that, occasionally, the alliteration of repeating the same word in a variety of parts of speech, for example fucking fuck-fucker fuck, is not only cathartic but poignant. Of course, it will lose it’s power, like any other device, if used to often. I also have admired the fact that even at the phonetic level many curses are exquisitely expressive. The beautiful frictatives and stops that hiss and spit out our emotions are integral to the beautiful functionality of those ‘bad’ words.

  21. Neil O'Farrell says:

    I’ve been trashed by using the f-bomb because people don’t deem it proper language for a minister. (If they only knew.) While I apologized, for form’s sake, I was exceedingly glad for my spunk. Like any child who is a quick learner, I now know that I have a powerful tool at hand that will finally get someone to pay attention to clergy-folk. I’d like a follow-up on this article with another (or two) that focuses on who’s doing the cussin’ and when and where. The semiotics of truly improper speech is complex and needs further reflection. Neil

  22. Ted Webster says:

    I was taught to swear with style. why just simply call someone an asshole, when you can call them a dirty rotten sack of Siberian sheep shit.

  23. Enn Cellie says:

    Saying some of those “trochees” outloud reminds me of the girl w/ turrets, in the movie Duece Bigelow : Male Gigelo! ;) *lol*

  24. William Shelton says:

    May all who object to this wonderful piece of wit be invited to go take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut… I’m still laughing my ass off! :-)


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