Note: This article touches on slut shaming, body shaming, homophobia, and ableism.
I love swearing. It’s a weekly miracle that my essays don’t include “totally fucked” or “fucked up and bullshit” in every paragraph. If I were reborn as a linguist, I would study swearing and cursing. I watch documentaries about cursing, I play a lot of Cards Against Humanity, and this interview with Melissa Mohr, the author of Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing is my favorite episode of Slate’s just-nerdy-enough podcast Lexicon Valley. If you’ve been in the audience when I give a presentation, you probably (despite my efforts to the contrary) heard me swear five or six times. I would hate to live in a world without swearing because it would be fucking dull. Unfortunately, my (and most English-speaking people) love of swearing comes into direct contradiction with inclusionary social politics. I need a new arsenal of swear words that punch up and tear down destructive stereotypes. Every time I swear, I want to be totally confident that I’m offending the right people.
Swearing, while not its only function, has a lot to do with offending people. Swearing is a necessary social sanction that does a lot of good in the world. There will always be people in this world that deserve to be told off. (Like my neighbor for example.) But in the process of telling each other where to shove it, we also reaffirm and establish who in the world is desirable and who is unwanted. So if I call you dumb, stupid, lame, gay, retarded, or even a girl, I’m not only saying that women, non-cis gendered people, or the differently abled are inherently bad, I’m also invoking all of the power of ableism, homophobia, and patriarchy to make you feel bad. Too many curse words strengthen the kind of social structures that we should be dismantling. I want to quickly and easily compare people to the parts of society that I find gross and unseemly. I want words that compare people to those with ill begotten wealth or obscene power but, so far, calling someone the President of the United States of America doesn’t have the sticking power it should.
Efforts to consciously and directly alter language rarely work, so producing a new collection of commonly used swear words is going to take more effort than making some up and putting them in a list. I do not want to rely on the “fetch” method of consciously injecting new words into daily conversation. That’s not to say such efforts are hopeless or naïve—putting a word to a feeling or a phenomena is the beginning of all sorts of movements and cultural revolutions—but I get the feeling that swear words just need to feel right. They need to come out of your mouth without a second thought.
The good news is that there are two large sociotechnical trends that work in our favor. The first is economic stagnation. Mohr, in the aforementioned Lexicon Valley interview, notes that the social taboo against swearing has everything to do with keeping your status. The very poor and the very rich (two classes that continue to grow in our present economic situation) have always been comfortable and blatant in their swearing. Swearing bares no risk if you don’t have anything to lose or are so well-heeled that there is no one else in the room that you need to impress. Only the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie are afraid of swearing. One could say that the socioeconomic climate is primed for swearing experimentation.
The second trend is the decentralization of media. Podcasts, YouTube videos, blogs, and even Netflix and Hulu exclusive content are all subject to far less regulation than radio or television. The words you cannot say on television are still the same, but there are plenty of other venues to test out new swear words. It’s strange then, that given all the Internet-inspired new words that have made it into dictionaries over the past decade (e.g. tweet, defriend, uplink), none of them are swears or curses. You might stop me here and say that those press releases are just ways of ginning up press for a dying institution– some shameless link bait by people that don’t really know what that means. I think that’s besides the point entirely. After all, what would be more press-worthy than a word you can’t say in polite company? And yet, the offerings remain scant. I guess I could call you a Scumbag Steve but in the heat of the moment I’m probably just going to call you a motherfucker.
Perhaps that’s just it. Most of the communicative innovation of the past decade has used photos, illustrations, video, and emoticons to express a feeling or an idea. As Jenny Davis wrote a few years back, memes are the mythology of our digitally augmented society. They don’t make arguments; they are the dominant ideologies of our time. I can offend you with an Insanity Wolf meme in ways that my parents probably couldn’t, but its going to use the same lexicon that they had. I’m not suggesting that this is a zero-sum game where we either get new words or new memes, but perhaps I’m looking for the wrong thing. Maybe new curse words won’t do as much culture work as I think they will because the fight has moved elsewhere: Away from utterances and towards a more heterogeneous system of self-expression.
Be that as it may, there’s no substitute for a new expletive to yell at people who cut you off on the highway. I’m not going to end this with a call for more swear words because that would be missing the point. Rather I’d like to see some words that are already in widespread use in relatively small communities (I imagine ShitRedditSays has a few.) and descriptions of how they came into being. I don’t think we can purposefully recreate moments where new words are born, but we can certainly foster an attentiveness or sensitivity to modes of evocative expression that rely solely on utterance. Perhaps, instead of copying and pasting something you whipped up on memegenerator.net, try to mash some words together. We could really fucking use some new ones.
David is on twitter god damnit: da_banks
saa — June 26, 2013
Actually, DB, it's rare to hear exceeding precise language and careful grammar. No one does that anymore. That would be the most subversive and radical thing you could do: speak beautifully.
whitneyerinboesel — June 26, 2013
when we get some new swear words, i'll insert one here to describe how much i loved this post. :)
the one new-ish pejorative i can get behind is "douchebag" (alt: "douchenozzle"). though i realize that its popularity as an insult is probably rooted in misogyny, an industry dedicated to telling women their sexual organs should smell like "flowers or rain" is pretty misogynistic, too. so while i recognize that there might be rare occasions when medical douching is necessary (?), i generally feel pretty confident filing "douche" under "bad."
that said, i'm trying to remember the last time i used the word "douchebag" without an F-bomb immediately preceding it. :P
saa — June 26, 2013
That's not what I meant, but I see your point. The problem is that cursing is way too common. Not cursing can almost have the same function as cursing -- is what I *meant* by that.
Joshua Comer — June 26, 2013
It's fun to create new attributes or brand existing traits with a negative connotation because of the way they can be thrown around in spikes of aggression or ironic exchanges with friends. But those attributes have often been based upon objectified and abjected bodies (asshole), the politically disenfranchised (idiot), and victims. You can offend with an Insanity Wolf meme as you say, but it has a good chance of being a rape joke. I think it might be more constructive to identify what those gross social sectors lack, like compassion, love, meaningful lives, etc., though there is nothing fun about that.
nathanjurgenson — June 26, 2013
*cough cough cough*
David Banks — June 26, 2013
A department colleague and good friend of mine, Pedro De La Torre, mentioned "Santorum" as an oh-my-god-how-did-I-miss-that curse word born on the internet. Dan Savage, in a 2003 column in The Stranger: ( http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/SavageLove?oid=14422 ) asked his readers to make Republican presidential hopeful and (at the time) Republican Senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum's last name a sex act of some kind. It ended up referring to, "the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the by-product of anal sex."
There's an entire web site devoted to "spreading Santorum" here: http://spreadingsantorum.com/index2.html
Nick — June 26, 2013
So I agree and disagree here. I think that we really getting into trouble when we use swearing/cursing to identify and equate an individual, in their totality, with the curse being used. What I would suggest is that we don't reduce that with labeling actions and statements with curses/swears. Calling someone a dick is not the same as saying "That's a dick move, bro."
I know that there will be detractors with this view of swearing, but I urge a more contextual view of these practices than essentializing these words.
Who the fuck knows, right?
Pedro — June 26, 2013
"Santorum" never made it into everyday speech, but the point was to annoy and embarrass a senator who built his career by spreading a frothy mixture of homophobia and sexism all over U.S. political discourse. It worked: http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2011/11/mitt-romneys-google-problem-solves-itself-rick-santorums-not-so-much/
I don't think it's the kind of swear that David is looking for since it still relies on associating the former senator with shit and sex, the ur-forms of almost all English cuss words, rather than having "gross and unseemly" politics speak for themselves.
Sallymander — June 29, 2013
Try French, especially Quebecois? The words flow together beautifully, and it's incredibly good for getting a point across if you run out of breath before you run out of vocabulary. Plenty of the words are completely harmless on their own (plenty aren't, but there are far more than seven or eight to choose from, with dozens of combinations that basically just translate to "fuck you!" in varying degrees of severity, and that ALONE is useful, that there's a fuck you use around your grandmother, and a fuck you use when you're about to kill someone) and even if the person doesn't understand them, they get the gist. It's addictive.
The english world needs a version of tabarnak.
In Their Words » Cyborgology — June 30, 2013
[...] “I need a new arsenal of swear words that punch up and tear down destructive stereotypes” [...]
P — July 1, 2013
"So if I call you dumb, stupid, lame, gay, retarded, or even a girl, I’m not only saying that women, non-cis gendered people, or the differently abled are inherently bad, I’m also invoking all of the power of ableism, homophobia, and patriarchy to make you feel bad."
Don't say "bad". "Bad" comes from the Old English "bæddel/bædling" which was a slur against effeminate men. Really. I'm not joking.
Jay @hautepop — July 1, 2013
Worth some discussion of the ur-swearword of them all: fuck. Used six times in this piece, and yet not mentioned. Too embedded to question? As I say, it's the most fundamental swear word we've got in the English language - plosive and deeply bodily... And potentially democratic: don't we all fuck? Well, no. Some fuck, some are fucked. Does 'fuck' carry with in it the implication that it's humiliating to be penetrated? Misogyny with a side order of homophobia? That's no good.
Motherfucker we can stick with though: surely it gains its force from incest, which remains pretty reliably taboo.
Thank god for that. Shit. What about blasphemy?
Curses! Ctd | The Penn Ave Post — July 2, 2013
[...] at 6:46 on July 2, 2013 by Andrew Sullivan David Banks, a self-proclaimed profanity enthusiast, spies two societal trends that he thinks could expand our pool of expletives: The first is economic [...]
Pontiff — July 3, 2013
It annoys me that Americans have turned the invaluable 'cunt' into a misogynistic slur. In the English-speaking non-US, a cunt is invariably a man (as would be an asshole or a dickhead - itself indicative of some subtle sexism)and denotes nothing more sinister than a particularly onerous wanker.
'Douche' and 'crap' are hideous worse that I would never use.
Murray — July 3, 2013
Fuck! The fucking fucker's fucking fucked.
Bo Stenberg — July 3, 2013
For various reasons, English may simply be tapped out. So I recommend we borrow, as mentioned elsewhere, from other languages: "pendejo," for example in Spanish--mostly American Spanish but recognized in Castellano as such also. Pendejo (pen-DAY-chhhhoh)literally means something that is hanging. Figuratively, it means the shit hanging from the rectal area of, say, a sheep: hanging shit. It is at once disgusting, useless, ridiculous and, finally, risible.
Sad to say (I am ancient) both douchebag and schmuck are very old--fageddabouddit.
Aldo — July 3, 2013
Have "taste" and "civility" become swear words yet?
@adpaskhughes — July 6, 2013
Umm... no mention of Malcolm Tucker?
Scott — July 6, 2013
A semester of Latin and Greek linguistic roots 20 years ago has given me great pleasure in creating swear words. My current favorite: coprolagniac. Who cares if he or she gets it? I'm expressing my frustration and general dismay. They may even get to it. For straight up calling out shitty behavior amongst friends: buddy-fucker.
QuantBaby: The Birth of a Datababe » Cyborgology — July 11, 2013
[...] to an automated response from the email system at my mother’s place of employment, after my enthusiasm for swearing tripped a newly-installed spam filter). I have no idea where they were keeping all this stuff, but [...]
Oculus Mundi — July 26, 2013
I rather like douchecanoe, and cuntmonkey is another new favourite.
As with those ignorant and woefully inexpressive bastards Shakespeare and Chaucer, my paucity of vocabulary, dreadful dearth of creativity and inability to write fluently, coherently and articulately is most indubitably the reason why I swear.
I do hope this offends someone. Even better if they write an offended comment about my comment. That always makes me laugh.
My Reading Archive · Rexy — September 5, 2013
[...] Fuck, I Need Some New Swear Words – davidbanks [...]
Cyborgology Turns Three » Cyborgology — October 26, 2013
[…] was a great year! The popularity of “Fuck, I Need More Swear Words” caught me off guard but I hope it got a lot more people thinking about the potential for […]
Friday Roundup: June 28, 2013 » The Editors' Desk — April 1, 2014
[…] don’t violate others’ privacy); David Banks has reached the end of the Internet, run out of swear words; and there’s a whole lotta dronin‘ going […]