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why I love cuss words I try to keep it clean, but sometimes a good fuck! or shit! provides just the release I need. Say you drop something heavy on your foot. "Gosh darn it!" doesn't cut it. And why should it? Language Hitlers say anyone who swears doesn't have sufficient mastery of the language. Bullshit. Invoke Shakespeare when someone cuts you off in traffic and see how fast you get through town.
Some folks can remember when they first heard the word "fuck" or "shit." I only remember being convinced that saying fuck would send me straight to hell, where you can cuss to your heart's content as demons stick red-hot pokers up your ass. At one point I was such a twisted goody-too shoes that I blackened out the single instance of the word fuck in a book of monologues by Steve Martin. I've been fucking overcompensating every since.
Swearing, cussing, taking the Lord's name in vain — all have been frowned on for centuries. George Washington told his troops to refrain from "the foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing." OK, George. You get butchered by better equipped Brits and watch your fingers and toes fall off in the cold. Can you hear those poor troops mumbling after the general rode off? "Fuck you, ya wigtop, and the horse you rode in on."
As part of his research on cursing, professor Tim Jay (author of Cursing in America and What To Do When Your Kids Talk Dirty) assigned his students to count "bad" words in the movies. The findings are not surprising: Movies during the Eighties contained an average of 81 cuss words, up from 24 during the Sixties and 1.5 in films before that. Is that an indication of a decline in our society, or is Hollywood making better movies? War is not some goddamned action-adventure movie. Even in classics like Gone With the Wind, do you think Scarlett O'Hara was shaking her fist at the sky saying, "Goshdarnit, I've lost everything and might die here of starvation?" Hell no. She was spitting, "Fuck them Yankees." But nobody gave a damn.
What galls me most is how hypocritical the media is when it comes to swear words. Richard Nixon swore like a bat out of hell on the Watergate tapes. But no newspaper had the guts to print the transcripts with the expletives not deleted. (Not only was Nixon an asshole, he had no talent using cuss words.) Reinhold Aman, a former university professor and editor of Maledicta Press, calls it "newspaper censorshit" so publications that quote him have to print it as "newspaper censorsh—." He wonders, as I do, why so many publications spell fuck as f—-. What is that? Find? Food? Fork? The newsweeklies will show its prissy readers graphic photos of mutilated Rwandans, but if someone says, "This is bullshit," it causes a ruckus. If you are going to disguise words that might offend some readers, what about h—-s—ual, ab—tion or s-x?
Once you start looking for censorship, it pops up everywhere. Entertainment Weekly once printed an interview with Howard Stern and used dashes to disguise words like asshole and fuck. But in the same article, the magazine included a graphic description of a Stern writer sticking his finger up someone's butt. When a Republican congressman called Bill Clinton a "scumbag," the New York Times didn't print the word. Instead, they called it a "vulgarity for a condom" (?) and later "a euphemism for a despicable person." That narrows it down.
More recently, the journalism review Brill's Content began censoring "naughty" words. In one issue, it quotes a court document: "Hotseattle also asked if I had seen a picture of his naked c--k." Is that how the affidavit printed the word? Probably not. So the quote isn't accurate. In past issues, this hardhitting magazine has also censored fuck and bullshit (the latter in an essay by investigative journalist Bob Woodward). I wrote editor in chief Steve Brill to ask about the policy. He told me that these words be blocked out because, "My kids read my magazine." Maybe he should call it Brill's Children's Content.
My favorite example of prudery has to be when Men's Health — a magazine read entirely by people with penises — quoted Robin Williams explaining how to save a stand-up routine. If all else fails, he said, "go for the d—- joke." Can you believe that? A men's magazine afraid of the word dick.
All of this is why, to get to the point, I have launched the Society to Highlight Ingrate Terms (SHIT). Just as the National Rifle Association believes that a good gun owner is an educated gun owner, SHIT reminds its members that cuss words relieve a tremendous amount of tension, but only if used with respect for their power. SHIT will educate people to use swear words properly. For instance, shit is an all-purpose word; cussers should use it when failing an exam or watching a favorite team cost you $20 by blowing a huge lead. However, if you use lose more than $20, that's a fuck. If you're dealing with the IRS, that might be a shit or a fuck, depending on who did your taxes; if you're dealing with the FBI or ATF, that's always a fuck.
Among other cuss words, asshole is good for the boss or moron coworkers or in-laws, but motherfucker should be reserved for more weighty situations, such as when a mugger shoots you even after you give him your wallet, or you realize you're slipping off the edge of the Grand Canyon as you back up for a family photo. I hear motherfucker invoked for the simplest of transgressions, such as a foul during a basketball game. No, no, no! "Fuck you" will suffice, or maybe "What the hell?" Motherfucker is a fairly serious accusation.
Membership in SHIT is free, but we do expect members to uphold certain standards. Children must be encouraged to use cuss words properly, or not at all (if a toddler wants to say shit when he falls on his face, he'll say it. Give him time). We do not swear at police officers, because they have guns. And although swear words exist in all languages, SHIT uses the English standard. Members are, however, permitted to say "Pardon my French."
Should you lack the control to use cuss words only when warranted, you may suspend your membership by saying aloud in front of two witnesses, "Fuck SHIT." Remember to burn your membership card.

SHIT membership card


news update

In 1963, the satirist Paul Krassner created a brilliant poster that reads Fuck Communism. Who could disagree? Here Kurt Vonnegut weighs in.

In 1997, Superior, Wisconsin, judge Charles Schaefer denied unemployment benefits to a woman who quit her job at Kentucky Fried Chicken. The woman said she quit because of the amount of vile language in the workplace. Schaefer ruled, "Use of vulgar and obscene language can promote group solidarity."

Actor Rupert Everett: "I don't mind bad words — for instance, fuck. I think it's amazing that it's a swear word. After all, it's something most everyone likes doing. It's sweet and harmless. We've overanalyzed things to make something pejorative out of an experience that's so nice. That's a weird madness."

In September 2000, then-presidential candidate George W. Bush was caught by a microphone calling a New York Times reporter "a major league asshole." Typically, the press had a more difficult time than Dubya spitting the word out.

In July 2001, the 138-year-old official newspaper of the Church of England, the Church Times, printed "fuck" without blocking out the letters. It occurred in an article about the hostility exhibited toward some nuns, such as the sister who had a lout scream in her face, "Fucking nun!" She replied, "I can be one or the other, but not both." The Church Times editor said he spelled the word out because it's "not an uncommon word these days, even in church circles." He also said, "The anecdote depends on that word." Amen.

In October 2004, the editor of the Chicago Tribune dispensed a team to the printing plant to pull a section that contained a story about the word cunt. While the word was never used in the story—it had the headline "You c_nt say that (or can you?)—the top editor decided that readers would be offended even by the discussion. So she and other company employees pulled the Woman News section from every of the paper before it left the plant.

In 2004 the journal ETC: A Review of General Semantics published a lecture by Allen Walker Read entitled "The Geolinguistics of Verbal Taboo" in which he presents a short history of "unmentionables."

In February 2005 the New York Times ran a review of a book by a college professor called On Bullshit. The review began this way: Harry G. Frankfurt, 76, is a moral philosopher of international reputation and a professor emeritus at Princeton. He is also the author of a book recently published by the Princeton University Press that is the first in the publishing house's distinguished history to carry a title most newspapers, including this one, would find unfit to print. The work is called On Bull - - - -. The opening paragraph of the 67-page essay is a model of reason and composition, repeatedly disrupted by that single obscenity: 'One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much [bull]. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize [bull] and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.' " The review continued for hundreds of more words, repeatedly using [bull] to substitute for the word bullshit. It also missed the irony completely when the reporter quoted Frankfurt as saying, "I'd been concerned about the prevalence" of [bull], he continued, "and the lack of concern for truth and respect for truth that it represented." "I used the title I did," he added, "because I wanted to talk about [bull] without any [bull], so I didn't use 'humbug' or 'bunkum.' " Talk about bullshit!

In March 2005, Glen Matlock, formerly of the foulmouthed punk band the Sex Pistols, declared, "It's pathetic when people just swear for the sake of it."

In August 2005, a newly released update to the Canadian Press Caps and Spelling, a reference guide used by many journalists, advises editors to spell out the word "fuck" when it appears in news stories. No dashes or "the eff word." Most coverage of the change did not spell out the word.

In September 2005, science writer Natalie Angier of the New York Times took a long, deep look at the history of human swearing. "Researchers who study the evolution of language and the psychology of swearing say cursing is a human universal. Every language, dialect or patois ever studied, living or dead, spoken by millions or by a small tribe, turns out to have its share of forbidden speech.... Even the Bible abounds in naughty passages like the men in II Kings 18:27 who, as King James translation puts it, 'eat their own dung, and drink their own piss.'... Investigators have examined the physiology of cursing, how our senses and reflexes react to the sound or sight of an obscene word. They have determined that hearing a curse elicits a literal rise out of people. When electrodermal wires are placed on people's arms and fingertips to study their skin conductance patterns and the subjects then hear a few obscenities spoken clearly and firmly, their skin conductance patterns spike, the hairs on their arms rise, their pulse quickens, and their breathing becomes shallow.... One researcher notes that studies have found that if you're with close friends, the more relaxed you are, the more you swear. It's a way of saying that you're so comfortable here that you can let off steam and say whatever you like.... Frans de Waal, a professor of primate behavior at Emory University in Atlanta, said that when chimpanzees were angry 'they will grunt or spit or make an abrupt, upsweeping gesture that, if a human were to do it, you'd recognize it as aggressive.' Such behaviors are threat gestures, Professor de Waal said, and they are all a good sign. 'A chimpanzee who is really gearing up for a fight doesn't waste time with gestures, but just goes ahead and attacks.'... By the same token, he said, nothing is more deadly than a person who is too enraged for expletives — who cleanly and quietly picks up a gun and starts shooting."

In its February 2007 issue, Reason magazine reported that the FCC had for once "reaffirmed the right to swear during a newscast." The commission reversed an order from March 2006 in which it had ruled that the utterance of "bullshitter" on CBS' "The Early Show" had been indecent. The reason? It had occurred during "news" programming, although it had been said by a contestant from Survivor. In its original ruling, the FCC had said that the fact that the word had been heard on a news program made it particularly disturbing. Nevertheless it insist that "there is no outright news exemption from our indecency rules."

In his book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, Harvard professor Steven Pinker hypothesizes that cuss words may be the missing link between animal vocalization and human language. "I think the same parts of the brain are involved when you bump your head and yell, 'Oh, fuck!' as when you step on a dog's tail and get a very sudden howl," he tells Wired. He notes that brain-damaged patients who lose the power of articulate speech often are still able to cuss. "Cathartic swearing" may have evolved to startle and unnerve an attacker, i.e., the recipient of "Go fuck yourself" almost invariably is taken aback by the sentiment.

In December 2007 Sister Kathy Avery told students at St. Clare of Montefalco Catholic School in suburban Detroit that they could not swear in school. To help them out she then read a list of all the forbidden words and phrases. "It got a little quiet in church," she said.

To mark the 50th anniversary of a San Francisco judge ruling that Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" was not obscene, a radio station in New York in December 2007 considered reciting the work over the air. But it resorted to posting the poem online since the FCC potentially could find it $325,000 for every curse word, which could total in the millions of dollars.

According to a study published in the Leadership and Organization Development Journal in 2007, swearing and other taboo language, in moderation, may help boost morale by creating solidarity among co-workers. Men use it to lob friendly insults at each other, and women use it to be assertive.

In October 2007 a judge in Scranton, Pennsylvania acquitted a woman charged with disorderly conduct for cussing out her overflowing toilet. Her neighbor, a cop, heard her through the window and reported her. The judge ruled that her language "may be considered by some to be offensive, vulgar and imprudent," but it is protected by the First Amendment.

In July 2008, according to the Times of London, students taking their GCSE English exams were given points for writing anything, including obscenities. One student who wrote "fuck off" was given points for one point for spelling and one point for conveying his meaning successfully, for a total of two out of 27 possible. "To gain minimum marks in English, students must demonstrate 'some simple sequencing of ideas' and 'some words in appropriate order,' " the paper reported, which the grader thought the student had achieved. He said, "It would be wicked to give it zero, because it does show some very basic skills. It's better than someone that doesn't write anything at all." He said he would have given the student an additional point had he used an exclamation point.

In June 2008, a New Mexico appeals court ruled that a Los Alamos man could not legally change his name from Variable to Fuck Censorship.

In July 2008, according to a South African news station, a police officer with 22 years on the force was fired for using the word "fuck" in front of his boss.

In July 2009, Scientific American reported on a study in the journal NeuroReport that suggests swearing can help you tolerate pain. College students were asked to keep their hands in cold water as long as they could while repeating an expletive of their choice or chanting a neutral word. When swearing, the 67 student volunteers reported less pain and on average endured the cold about 40 seconds longer.

In May 2011, researchers from Keene University in the U.K. presented research at the British Psychological Society’s annual conference that suggests men and women who swear infrequently have a higher tolerance for pain when they shout obscenities. According to a Keene University press release, "The findings revealed that the more often people swear in daily life, the less extra time they were able to hold their hand in the icy water when swearing, compared with when not swearing." The lead researcher, Dr. Richard Stephens, explained, "While saying that swearing as a response to pain might be beneficial, there is evidence that if you swear too often in everyday situations the power of swearing won't be there when you really might need it." He added: "While I wouldn't advocate the prescription of swearing as part of a medicalized pain management strategy, our research suggests we should be tolerant of people who swear while experiencing acute pain. Indeed, I occasionally receive letters from members of the public recounting episodes in which they, as adults, have been chastised for swearing during a painful episode. They feel that my research findings vindicate their actions."

In June 2011, Robert Sayegh of Brooklyn was kicked off an Atlantic Southeast Airlines flight after a 45-minute delay when complained to another passenger, "What's taking so fucking long?" The flight attendant claimed he was being disruptive, but Sayegh defended himself by saying that in Brooklyn "we curse as adjectives."

In December 2011, the Australian official in charge of broadcast standards dropped the F bomb on live national television in the middle of the day while speaking at the National Press Club. After being asked whether Australia was a "risk-free place to do business," Stephen Conroy replied, "If a tax goes up, God, that is sovereign risk, but if a tax goes down that's fucking fantastic. Excuse me, that is fantastic.''


cuss word bookstore

Fuck bookEnglish as a Second F*cking Language

Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language

The F-Word: Its History and Meaning

Erotic Thesaurus

Elbert's Bad Word

Cuss Control: How to Curb Your Cursing

Swearing: A History of Foul Language

Bad Word Dictionary

Bawdy Language: Everything You Always Wanted To Do But Were Afraid To Say

Depraved and Insulting Language

NTC's Super-Mini Forbidden American English

The Slangman Guide to Dirty English

Street Spanish: The Best of Spanish Slang

Street Italian: The Best of Italian Slang

Dermo!: The Real Russian Tolstoy Never Used

Merda!: The Real Italian You Were Never Taught in School

!Mierda!: The Real Spanish You Were Never Taught in School

Scheisse!: The Real German You Were Never Taught in School

Zakennayo!: The Real Japanese You Were Never Taught in School


visitor feedback

From David Parkins:
Yeah, yeah, I know that people speaking their minds is liberating and all that but societies and cultures have always had standards of that which is deemed decent and that which is not. I grew up in a time when it was deemed not cool to swear in public. Sure, we swore amongst friends and in private and away from earshot of others, and the result was a less aggressive, less despondent oh screw it all kind of existence. I like a society that is respectful of other people and keeps swearing in its appropriate setting. Please.


This first appeared in my fanzine, Chip's Closet Cleaner, Issue 11.

See also: The King of Dirty Words (article)

The First Time Various Bad Words Were Used in The New Yorker (article)

Words Near Cuss Words in the Dictionary

fuchsine n [F fuchsine prob. fr. NL Fuchsia; fr. its color] (1865): a dye that is produced by oxidation of a mixture of aniline and toluidines and yields a brilliant bluish red.

shittah n, pl [Heb shittah]: tree of uncertain identity but prob. an acacia from the wood of which the ark and fittings of the Hebrew tabernacle were made.

mother country n (1587) 1: the country of one's parents or ancestors, 2: the country from which the people of a colony derive their origin, 3: a country that is the origin of something.

asseverate vt [L asseveratus, pp. of asseverare, fr. ad- + severus severe] (1791): to affirm or aver positively or earnestly.

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