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.
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.
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.
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