The Proper Use of Profanity

A basic guide to the correct use of English profanity.

I’m going to warn everyone right now: the language in this post is going to be pretty fucking strong. There are going to be nasty, derogatory references to male and female genitalia, bodily functions, sexual acts, and some hygiene products. Some of these will be offensive to almost any set of sensibilities. That is, I must admit, kinda the point. You may want to stop reading now, in fact.

It’s about time someone wrote a proper article on how to use English profanity effectively. I look at the young people today hoping that TYPING IN ALL CAPS will make their weak, unstructured swearing more impressive, and all I feel is pity. English is perhaps the most exquisitely expressive language on Earth, with a working vocabulary twice the size of most languages, and a history of pure invective that can stand up against any living tongue. Any truly fluent English speaker should be able to use all the words, even the rude ones. No, especially the rude ones.

Ask yourself: how often in your daily life do you need to describe someone as ebullient, and how often do you need to describe someone as a bottom-feeding prick? How often is your personal situation temeritous, and how often is it utterly fucked? To embrace profanity is to embrace the stuff of everyday life, and be far more able to discuss it realistically.

Some might question my qualifications to lecture others on how to swear. To this I can only offer a brief biographical sketch. My late mother had a godawful habit of ordering flat-packed furniture by mail and not wanting to assemble or arrange it. These tasks she quite sensibly delegated to her son. My understanding with mom was this: I would assemble whatever damn thing she ordered and arrange it however the fuck she wanted, but she forfeited any right to complain about any fucking language I employed in the dick-wrenchingly unpleasant process of putting those ungodly cocksuckers together.

Point is, I got an awful lot of practice swearing. Fucking Ikea.

The fact is, English profanity is a form of poetry. The rules and guidelines of English poetry provide structures and forms with which we can understand how best to cuss in this glorious, filthy language of ours.

No, I’m not kidding.

 

Basic vocabulary

Fuck. Damn. Hell. Shit. Cock. Ass. Dick. Bitch. Douche. Bastard. Pussy. Piss. Tits. Prick. Cunt.

These are your basic building blocks, the foundation on which a skilled curser will construct mighty edifices of profanity. 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), others work to reclaim it. Myself, I am often wary of overly gendered insults in practice; I worry that their history causes them to carry a problematic weight beyond their immediate usefulness. Ultimately, one uses whatever vocabulary one is comfortable with.

The important thing to remember is that, when swearing good and hard, any of these words may function as nearly any part of speech. Most of them are designed that way, able to function as verbs or nouns interchangeably, but if you’re on a roll and you need cock to be a verb, then it is. Language is ultimately a tool of communication, and must serve that end. If you need to communicate that someone is a fathomless ass-cocking son of a bitch, then that’s what you need to do.

Beyond the basic words are the modifiers, of which there are an infinite variety. “Son of a—” can function as a useful prefix, and while it is typically and easily attached to bitch and whore, it can go anywhere. Consider the usefulness of “Son of a BASTARD!” when trying to get an engine to turn over.

There are also various verbs that can be appended to obscene nouns, such as suck, lick, eat, nuzzle, guzzle, rub, beat, snort, and so on. Referring to someone as a dickbeating shitsucker has an appealingly counterintutive tone, for example.

Almost anything can be appended to one of the core words as a suffix, with its own subtle shades of meaning. Consider the implicit distinctions between calling someone a fuckwad, a fuckhole, a fuckstick, a fuckbasket, or a fuckknob. I myself am fond of the -monger suffix, as in cockmonger, dickmonger, cuntmonger, and shitmonger. With practice, you will discover your own favorites. The important thing to remember is that almost nothing is off-limits.

 

Rhythm

This is the key to truly great swearing. If you learn nothing else, learn rhythm. The rhythms of spoken English are gorgeous, to the point that non-speakers can imitate our cadences and produce a kickass song with no actual English words. And the grand tradition of English poetry has developed useful and elegant tools that apply just as well to cussing a blue streak.

An iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. “Lick shit” is an iamb, with the emphasis falling hard on “shit”. “Go eat a bag of honey-roasted dicks” is five iambs in succession, unstressed-stressed, unstressed-stressed, and so on, thus making it a fine example of English iambic pentameter.

More useful in day-to-day swearing, however, are trochees. A trochee is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, and as has been pointed out, they’re everywhere in English. “Asshole” is one good example, as are “fuckbag” and “dickhead”. “Fuck your bitchwad mother in the asshole” would be an example of trochaic pentameter, for those keeping track at home.

Perhaps my own personal favorite constructions, however, are dactyls. A dactyl is a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, as in “cockknocking” “cuntmonger” or “rat-bastard”. They form elegant, Seussian constructions such as “Dick-licking shitworthy ungodly son of a douchebucket”, which is, in keeping with the previous two paragraphs, dactylic pentameter.

These are hardly the only syllabic forms that emerge from the structures of spoken English, but they will do as a starting point. This is, after all, merely a primer in basic principles of profanity. Further study will prove rewarding for the serious scholar.

 

Alliteration and Assonance

This is where we begin to separate out the truly great cussers from the mere foul-mouthed motherfuckers. Alliteration, is of course, the repetition of a first letter or phoneme in successive words, such as “bitchbagging bare-balled bastard”. While a useful technique that creates a memorable sound, it is difficult to apply to the limited vocabulary of English profanity. When done well, it can be a cock-knocking cunt-cramming cavalcade of contemporary cursing, but its limitations must be understood.

Of more use in the field is the subtler and more engaging art of assonance, which is the repetition of vowel sounds within words. Were one to select the popular short-I vowel sound, for example, one could easily call someone a dimwitted dicklicking split-prick shitkicker son of a bitch. A commitment to a more misogynist tone and a taste for a short-U sound could produce references to a cuntbuggering fuck-ugly spunk-drunk cum dumpster. Do either of these make technical lexicographic sense? No, not really. Are they memorable and effective? Yes. Let us admit that technical perfection was left behind the moment we decided to start swearing, and work with what we’ve got.

 

Overall Construction

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. When in doubt, do not come off like a first-grader who just learned to cuss that morning.

With practice, you will learn to space out the basic vocabulary, breaking it up into a workable, almost chantlike rhythm, allowing one to build long and effective phrases such as “Cock-knocking dickbastard son of a cuntmongering fuckheaded shit-eating bastard-ass douchenozzle dicknosed piece of crap” while, oh, just for example, trying to assemble 200 pounds of particle board with a three-inch Allen wrench. (Thanks again, mom.)

 

Let me reiterate that if you choose not to use profanity in your day-to-day life, perhaps saving it up for special occasions (After all, Thanksgiving’s getting closer, and Uncle Larry is probably not less racist than he was last year) or perhaps eschewing it altogether, I don’t judge or condemn your choice. I like my language, like my food, highly spiced and complex, but I recognize that this taste is not universal. What I’m advocating for is taking the time to swear well if you’re going to. To extend the food metaphor, there’s a difference between a properly-blended panang curry and just fucking dumping fucking Sriracha sauce all the fuck over everything.

 

Photo—Cursing from Shutterstock

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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.

Comments

  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” http://imissyouwheniblink.com/2012/04/26/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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